Last week, I was browsing the internet for information about the tragic attack in Nice on Bastille Day, when I spotted a story that suggested disturbing new images were circulating of the Isis attacks on Paris inside the Bataclan theatre late last year. I was about to click “Search” — but then I had a second thought and stopped.
Until recently, I assumed that one of the great benefits of the internet was that it could give access to any information we wanted, any time we wanted. But, as the fight with Islamist extremism intensifies, I now realise that this privilege has turned into a curse. These days, the war is not only being waged on the battlefield; a second front has opened up in cyber space. And what makes this second — largely hidden — fight so insidious is that it involves all of us, sitting in our own homes in front of our computer screens or mobile phones.
Isis has taken the media game to a new level. In the past, terrorist and insurgent groups have often used the media to propagate their messages. What makes Isis unusual is that it is not only extraordinarily adept at mastering modern media platforms but that it has made this a strategic priority, to spread fear and attract new recruits. Its media outreach has been so effective that some US intelligence observers even suspect that Isis has studied western consumer giants to replicate their marketing tactics.
It seeks to build “audience engagement” and “reach”, creating memorable “content” that can be easily “shared”. Hence those horrific images of beheadings and so on. Indeed, reports suggest that Isis has recently even put GoPro cameras on the ends of guns to produce images that will appeal to millennial video game players.
Until recently, Washington seemed unable to fight back. But if Rick Stengel, a senior State Department official who used to be editor of Time magazine, is to be believed, this is now changing — at least to some degree. The US government realises it is unlikely to succeed by producing its own American-branded content, which tends to be too clunky and dull. Instead, US officials prefer to rely on moderate Muslim groups countering Isis material. “Isil is losing the digital war,” Stengel recently told the Aspen Ideas Festival. “Over the last year, there has been an exponential increase in anti-Isil voices … [these are] creating six times as much content as Isil is creating.”
At the same time, Silicon Valley — under US government pressure — has also become more efficient at removing Isis content from the web. Academics at George Washington University, for example, have been tracking Isis’s presence on Twitter — and while it was increasing rapidly two years ago, it is now declining: accounts associated with the group are rapidly closed down.
That sounds encouraging. But there is a catch. As the battle in cyber space has intensified, one of the more interesting statistics to emerge is that — contrary to western perceptions — English is not the most prevalent language for Isis material. Instead, around 85 per cent of Isis’s social media posts are in Arabic, about 12 per cent in Russian — the rest in English or French.
In theory, this should hamper the spread of Isis messages in the west; in reality, the western mainstream media have sometimes done Isis’s own “work”, by reproducing these messages — in translation. So have numerous websites and blogs. “Today beheading videos get taken down very fast, sometimes after just 25 views,” says Stengel. “Most people [in the west] see images [like beheadings] through the [western] media.”
Hence my moment of remorse earlier this week. In theory, one way to deal with this cyber war with Isis might be for US officials to ban the reproduction of Isis visual messages. Stengel is reluctant to back that idea. Instead, he calls for tasteful, thoughtful restraint. That sounds sensible — as a journalist I would argue that deliberate censorship is neither feasible nor desirable in a world ruled by the internet. But can you really impose “restraint” in a world where media outlets are fighting for clicks? Where does censorship start and dignity begin? How, in other words, can you divide credible “news” from “war porn”?
There are no easy answers. Yet one thing is clear: this is a “war” in which we are all involved. Reflect on that the next time you see a picture of a terrorist outrage or hear about new atrocities. And if you are tempted to press “Search”, then think again.