Have you thought about ISIS this week? Unless you live in a cave, the answer is probably yes — even if you didn’t want to. The TV at the gym, the radio, the web. ISIS is part of our daily lives now.
The problem is, that’s exactly what ISIS wants. Every newscast, video and article about them — including this one — enhances our sense of threat and their feeling of power. They murder innocents in utterly gruesome ways to get our attention. Why should we give it to them? Perhaps, instead, the media should treat them like parents treat children who are acting out. Ignore them. Refuse even to acknowledge them.
Granted, giving ISIS the silent treatment sounds counterintuitive. It smacks of censorship, which is more aligned with extremist values than democratic ones. Besides, we need to know what they are doing if we want to stop them, right?
Not necessarily. In fact, the way Western media disseminates ISIS’ discourse — inadvertently, of course — might give more force to the movement. The members of the would-be caliphate are “experts in viral advertising,” says Amanda Rogers, a University of Wisconsin post-doc who studies “the semiotics of rebellion.” And the Western media, she says, “is playing right into their hands by spreading their materials.”
Consider: ISIS produces its films like low-budget horror movies. The backdrops, high-res images and meticulous editing are calibrated to produce shock. The media’s resulting obsession with these videos could entice would-be jihadis. “The more we make them into the ‘public enemy No. 1,’ the more potential recruits feel like what ISIS is trying to do is actually possible,” says Clark R. McCauley, a social psychologist at Bryn Mawr College and author of Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us.
But what about media’s duty to inform, and a free press? Trickier, to be sure, but media in the most democratic societies don’t apply those values uniformly or absolutely. Out of respect, most Western outlets refused to air images of Westerners’ executions, though they have shown lurid images of Syrians and Iraqis slain by ISIS. Tsunamis of coverage follow a Westerner’s murder by ISIS, but daily killings of Syrians or Iraqis are systematically underreported. The Western media’s biases, though probably inevitable, have become more ammunition for ISIS to accuse the West of Islamophobia — and have alienated many Muslims.
Of course, convincing every single media outlet in the world to stop talking about ISIS would be impossible. Withholding such eye-grabbing information goes against journalists’ most fundamental instincts and the industry’s most commercial aspects. “You can’t put the cat back in the bag now,” says Rogers, the semiotics expert. She believes that instead of a full blackout, mass media should provide better context, add more analysis and jettison sensationalism.
Well, that’s likely. (Not.) At this point, it might be more realistic to expect the media to simply shut up about it. It wouldn’t have to be forever. Maybe one week of silence on the issue could be enough to learn some valuable lessons and temporarily short-circuit ISIS’ sophisticated PR machine. Because, as a general rule of thumb, if what you are doing is making mass murderers happy, you should stop. After you’ve left a comment below, that is.