For newspapers and television, acts of terrorism inevitably make good copy and compelling viewing. The hijacker and the terrorist thrive on publicity: without it, their activities and their influence are sharply curtailed […] they see how acts of violence and horror dominate the newspaper columns and television screens of the free world. They see how that coverage creates a natural wave of sympathy for the victims and pressure to end their plight no matter what the consequence. And the terrorists exploit it.
And we must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend. In our societies we do not believe in constraining the media, still less in censorship. But ought we not to ask the media to agree among themselves a voluntary code of conduct, a code under which they would not say or show anything which could assist the terrorists’ morale or their cause while the hijack lasted?
The above was from a speech delivered by Margaret Thatcher, to the American Bar Association on July 15, 1985. The hijack Thatcher referenced, was the TWA Flight 847 which occurred in June that year. While the situation was ongoing and even afterwards, ABC, an American news network, aired extensive interviews with both hijackers and hostages, giving massive publicity to the hijackers.
The role of the media is to gather information, apply news values and judgement to that information – the ‘gatekeeping function’ – and transmit it onward to the viewer or listener. This is the way by which we are informed of events happening in our immediate environment and even far flung corners of the world, and this information helps us to act accordingly.
However, these roles of the media, when applied to acts of terror and the pronouncements of terrorists, comes dangerously close to furthering their agenda.
In warfare, the control of communication has always been very important, and in the war against terrorism, especially in the 21st century, this is even truer. Terrorists are ambitious people who know how to manipulate the media. They attack targets in a manner that is certain to draw media attention and give them a platform to push their ideology. Radical teachings and propaganda videos are also posted online to win sympathy for their cause. Like Robert Kaplan noted recently: “Passion, deep belief, political protests and so forth have little meaning nowadays if they cannot be broadcast”.
Many of us will remember Osama bin Laden’s use of media organisations like CNN to broadcast his videos, and other terrorist groups like Boko Haram and ISIS have followed this example. ISIS in particular have shown a great affinity for communication channels, using them to recruit disaffected Muslims from the West.
Another thing ISIS love to do is decapitate American and British citizens on camera and put the videos on the internet. The aim of these acts, carefully choreographed, is to project brutality, spread fear among Western citizens and to goad Western governments into taking rash actions.
Some people who have realized this ploy started a hashtag called #ISISMediaBlackout, pledging not to watch or share any of the videos, and it is about time that citizens of other countries battling with terrorism take a similar position.
Over the last two weeks, strong indications emerged that Shekau, or someone masquerading as him for the purpose of making videos, was killed by the Nigerian military. While it may not be an absolute certainty that the real Shekau is dead, it is also true that Boko Haram’s leadership have a vested interest in keeping their leader – or the idea of him – alive, in order not to dent morale.
With this in mind, the value of disseminating videos and statements of Abubakar Shekau is highly questionable, beyond selling papers and generating website hits. For all we know, news outlets and blogs are the life support keeping a dead terrorist leader alive in the minds of Nigerians.
In addition, some of the reportage about the ‘capture’ of several towns in Borno close to the border with Cameroon, last month, failed to reflect the context of a fluid battle situation, and rather gave the impression that Nigerian troops were being overrun, when this was inaccurate.
On the government side, there is a lot more it can do to put its message out there. The use of embedded reporters reporting live from the front lines can be very effective, and I do not imagine it will take that much to ensure their safety. The presence of the Defence headquarters on Twitter helps, but the handling of the account needs to be much more professional, and should include videos of the Nigerian military in action as often as possible, not just tweets.
War is not just fought on the battlefield. It is also fought in the hearts and minds of people, and the media is a key part of shaping perceptions. Our new media age means that all of us are simultaneously producers and consumers of media. We draw from, and contribute to, the stream. The implication of this is that there is a greater need than ever to be conscious of what we view, read, and share. Watching, viewing, and spreading messages of terror means that half the terrorist’s job is done.
Terrorism is theatre, and we must deny the terrorists a stage, whether on our television screens, the pages of our newspapers, and our social media streams.