Hardly a day goes by without reading articles on how smart and tech-savvy – yet barbarian – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is. Typing the word “ISIL” alongside “social media”, “internet” or “media strategy” into a search engine reveals the gloomy yet fascinating world of those online jihadists who seem to be savvy enough to master, together with Kalashnikovs and knives, the modern language of the participatory Web 2.0.
Countless articles have thoroughly dissected last June’s #AllEyesonISIS Twitter campaign, launched to prove the groups’ alleged grassroots online support. Media professionals have emphasised these jihadists’ sophisticated knowledge of contemporary social networking sites, which became clear when they managed to build an Android app available for public downloading. The same was evident when they quickly migrated from Twitter to Diaspora, an online networking site, once the San Francisco-based organisation decided to shut down several of their accounts.
Western media fills its airtime and webspace with analyses of why the group provokes both repulsion and fascination among a wide audience.
The obsession with ISIL and its alleged social media success is more apparent in the West. Listening to Arabic media leads to an unexpected discovery. Quite a different framework, in fact, is employed by Arabic-speaking outlets when dealing with ISIL and its fighters.
While in the Arab media, ISIL is depicted as a western post-colonial creation, in international, English-speaking outlets, the organisation is described as a bunch of tech-savvy barbarians who inspire repulsion but also a sort of fascination for their activities in the cyber world and on the ground.
First of all, parody and irony are common on Facebook and other social networking posts that talk about ISIL. This sort of takfiri dark humour, which points to an extremist doctrine of casting others as apostates, is widely documented in Arab media, while almost ignored by its western counterpart.
A few weeks ago, a well-known satirical Palestinian TV series, “Watan ala watar” (Country on a string), came to the attention of international media for poking fun at ISIL.
Most likely, this happened because the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), an organisation cofounded by a former Israeli military intelligence officer and based in Washington DC, had translated the clip into English and distributed it on the internet.
The excerpt shows an ISIL checkpoint where two Arab citizens, a Lebanese and a Jordanian, are stopped and executed by the fighters. Soon after, an Israeli passing by is warmly greeted and allowed to go on. This reflects a common feeling among Arab audiences: ISIL targets Arabs much more than it targets Israel or the western world.
Recently, several young Arab voices on social networking sites protested the obsessive attention given by an outraged international community to the beheading of James Foley and Steven Sotloff after so few paid attention to ISIL’s beheading of two Lebanese soldiers and a Syrian journalist, Bassam Rayes.
Outrage on social media
Secondly, news features and op-eds produced by Arab media often read the rise of ISIL within a post-colonial framework. Several Arab analysts connect the rise of jihadist networks and sectarian groups to the imposition of borders by the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916, which they argue resulted in entrenching sectarianism and fragmentation in the region.
Despotic regimes supported by colonial powers in order to maintain the status quo further subjugated citizens in the region through authoritarianism, and an education based on fear and the glorification of the leader’s sole authority. Within this context, civil society did not have any vital space to grow and organise itself in the shape of social movements or parties.
The “Arab Spring” was the first opportunity in decades for the people to reclaim their dignity and move Arab societies forward. However, this spontaneous movement was crushed, partly because former colonial powers had no interest in seeing a post Sykes-Picot Arab world shaped by the Arabs themselves. In an op-ed, which was recently translated into English, a prominent Syrian journalist writes: “Our entire region has been violated by those near and far in order to carry out whatever they want under the pretext of combating terrorism.”
So while in the Arab media, ISIL is depicted as a western post-colonial creation, in international, English-speaking outlets, the organisation is described as a bunch of tech-savvy barbarians who inspire repulsion but also a sort of fascination for their activites in the cyber world and on the ground.
However, a recent study on ISIL’s activity on Twitter authored by Shiraz Maher and Joseph Carter has shown that only 50 users accounted for 20 percent of their tweets. This suggests that the organisation’s alleged influence on social networking sites might be the result of a western hype generated by the schizophrenia of our own media system, which is concerned by the threat of terrorism but simultaneously fascinated by a mediated violence that can be easily accessed via every portable device and consumed at home on HD TV screens.
A decade ago, our biggest mediated fear was a man named Osama Bin Laden who used to make his media appearances using a long shot, filmed with a fixed camera, in a simple setting with only a Kalashnikov for his background prop.
More than 10 years have now passed. The long shot has been replaced by fancy fade work, contemporary editing techniques and HD cameras. It seems that ISIL does not need TV channels anymore to spread its violent message.
Today, it has on its side the architecture of the participatory web and the viral circulation of content boosted by social media. And a very special – probably unintentional – ally: western media, drawn in by ISIL’s paradoxically hideous allure.
Donatella Della Ratta is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Copenhagen focusing her research on the Syrian TV industry. She has authored two monographs on Arab media, and curated chapters on Syrian media and politics in several collective books.