The Isis Propaganda War and its Moral Consequences
Islamic State (Isis) is using a variety of social media tools to spread their jihadist message across the globe. While some are rather odd, such as the internet meme of #catsofjihad, which combines cats with weapons, others are highly sophisticated, as Steve Ross details in his comprehensive article on the media tools Isis is using. Isis is distributing documentary-style videos in several languages which come with their own Hollywood-like trailers, propaganda tweets that detail the supposedly good Isis is doing, and footage of gruesome combat actions which at times is intertwined with video game footage. But nothing attracted more media attention than the videos of hostage killings such as the latest of the beheading of Alan Henning. While all the other parts of the Isis propaganda make sense to me, I had a hard time understanding why publish such horrific videos: How could such appalling videos help recruitment?
Ross concludes in his article about the video of Alan Henning’s killing: “In propaganda terms, it was a colossal own-goal.” And I had the same sentiment for a long time. Releasing the videos does not help to get ransom from either the British or the American government – one of the main goals of taking hostages – nor does it seem to help convince potential recruits to that Isis is fighting the good cause. Rather the absolute opposite. Ross expresses a similar sentiment when stating that the release of the video “has exposed them as both inhumane and un-Islamic.” And on top of it, it might have swayed the emotions of the American, British, and Western people to support an intervention in Iraq. Few wanted to get involved again in a war in Iraq, yet these videos might have persuade a lot of people that it is necessary. So why publish these videos?
Some of the commentaries on the Ross article suggested that Isis wants to target people without feelings for other people – psychopaths in psychological terms – with these videos. Psychopaths constitute a rather small percentage of any population, about 1%. Tailoring your recruitment efforts towards such a small percentage – independent of whether or not that actually works – at the cost of potentially losing the rest seems to be highly inefficient even without taking potential other negative consequences into account.
Despite these counter-arguments, the videos of hostage killings might prove to be effective in recruiting support for Isis, not as a direct consequence, but via indirect effects. The horrific nature of these videos caused moral outrage in the media as well as with Western people in general – understandably so – and let to a radicalization of the discussion. From a psychological perspective, the most dangerous consequence of such an emotional debate is a black and white thinking of in-group versus out-group: You are either with us or against us. This tendency is signified in the recent The Sun campaign on the weekend, which asks British people to declare, if you are either with the British people or against them. While this campaign in wording is supposedly addressed at British people of all faiths, it clearly targets British Muslims to declare their side.
Such an oversimplification of the debate – with us or against us – entails strong psychological consequences, detailed in decades of research on in-group versus out-group status. In the case of the UK, British people might start to see every Muslim in their communities as a member of the out-group, leading to gross generalizations of out-group members as basically all the same, dehumanization of the out-group (see Joshua Shepherd’s thoughtful blog post on dehumanization here) , discrimination against the out-group, and an increase in perceived threat from the out-group, among other things. If you read the comments under Ross’ article, you can see these mechanisms at work. One commenter suggests using atomic bombs, and others chime in that we should not worry too much about killing innocent, suggesting the lives of out-group members have less value. Others suggest boycotting Muslim establishments and businesses, and seizing the property of Muslim families which children or relatives became Jihadist. Obviously, internet comments are not the most reliable measurement for what people in general think, but in our case demonstrate nicely the immediate effects of an in-group versus out-group framework. The effects of the distinction between in-group and out-group on discriminatory behaviour can be seen in children as young as one year old, suggesting a deep-rooted innate mechanism.
Isis will not care much about such comments, but they will care about the effects of such a debate climate on Muslims everywhere. Forced to defend themselves, becoming the target of discrimination, stereotyping, and being perceived as a threat will increase the chances that Muslims will more strongly apply the same in-group and out-group thinking to the rest of the world. Threats to the in-group are one of the most powerful mechanisms to increase the commitment to the in-group. While this will not lead most in-group members to literally start war against the out-group members, this certainly will help to push people on the fringe closer to radicalization. And it also will increase the segregation of Muslims, seeking the less hostile environment of their own communities. Such divides with-in the British society will likely outlast Isis, and will need time and active efforts to bridge.
The implications of such considerations do not provide easy solutions. Everyone involved in the discussion needs to control their immediate passionate reactions and simple generalization automatically provided by innate mechanisms. On top, we need to invest as much reason and cognitive effort to provide fine-grained, specific description of who the people are we talking and writing about. And media outlets should carefully consider if and when to use Isis propaganda in their reports as well as the accompanying language, being mindful of not playing into the hands of terrorists and their recruitment efforts.