The Orange and the Black: The Impact of ISIS Propaganda on Western Audiences’.

A guest post by Raghuvir Dass

A study in 2001 found that people enjoy narratives that produce intense emotional reactions, the more disgusting or violent the story, the more likely it is to be shared. As Einstein once wrote to Freud, “…man has within him a lust for hatred and destruction, in normal times this passion exists in a latent state…” If this is true, it seems to be reflected in the phrase ‘if it bleeds it leads’, used in journalism to describe how stories based on fear and descriptive violence appeal to people. As Hoffman correctly pointed out, media groups don’t exist in a vacuum, like any business, they respond naturally to consumer demand, a demand for description and drama over analysis.

Past research confirms this. A content analysis of The New York Times during Gulf War II found that only 2% of the sample had a broader discussion of what caused the war as opposed to 43% of articles that focused on military conflict and action. A similar result was found by Shanto and Iyengar for Gulf War I, they found that prime time broadcasts rarely provided “…analyses of the antecedents of the conflict, historical precedents for similar territorial disputes, information about the socio-economic and cultural makeup of Iraqi and Kuwaiti society or other contextual presentations.” Another content analysis conducted in 1981 found a lack of media interest in analysing a terrorist’s causes and motivations and a focus on the act of violence itself, an indication of detail oriented coverage.

A content analysis that I conducted to determine the type of media coverage surrounding ISIS confirmed the above findings. 2,247 online news articles, a near complete list of all stories with ISIS as primary topic published by The Guardian and The Daily Mail from the 1st of January 2014 to the 30th of September 2014 were categorised according to primary article theme, image type and source. The pie charts I created (but not shown here) show the total coverage of the different article themes over the time period described.

Most stories were detail oriented and focused either on the recruitment of foreign jihadists, military action and attacks on the local populace. Images of Western government leaders along with refugees and locals suffering comprised about a 1/3 of the total imagery used while Western government sources were the most relied upon. The overall proportion of articles that dealt with analysis was low at 9%, with only 1.4% of articles explaining why or how ISIS came to power.

An analysis of the data showed that the beheading of American journalist James Foley by the ISIS jihadi nicknamed ‘Jihadi John’ marks a watershed moment in the media coverage. For example, The Guardian, prior to his murder, filed stories about ISIS under World News – Iraq’ or ‘World News – Syria’. Post Foley’s murder ISIS received its own website section, with stories filed under ‘World News – Islamic State’. While this sort of recognition is subtle, the general media attention post Foley can be seen as an example of Lazarsfeld and Merton’s ‘status conferral function’ where simply being the focus of the mass media’s attention automatically results in the enhancement of status regardless of editorial support. There are signs to indicate this in the increase of statements of military intent against ISIS and the discussion of counter recruitment strategies.

After the content analysis, 21 post graduate students from Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies were divided into three focus groups and shown three ISIS propaganda videos featuring John Cantlie. They were asked to write down five things they knew about ISIS before and after the group.

Out of 21 participants, two showed dissonant reactions, in one breath condemning the videos as ‘propaganda’ and in the next stating a clear belief in the claims being made. Another seemed to think that ISIS must be doing some good work for the civilians in the area, after the group she wrote down, ‘provide a land for civilians to grow’. One seemed to think that it wasn’t propaganda at all, writing that there was now an awareness of the “fact” that they support people’s lives locally with schools and hospitals. All participants held negative views of ISIS prior to the focus group. This means that a total of four participants, almost a fifth, showed changed views and opinions that can be attributed to the videos. This could be due to a possible lack of awareness of the damage ISIS has caused on the ground despite widespread coverage. A juxtaposition of the pre focus group written statements and content analysis results revealed correlations between some areas of coverage and participant knowledge but there was no mention about refugees, Yazidis or other local Iraqis or Syrians. During the discussions the Yazidis received only a mention in the first group.

It is tempting to conclude that the detail oriented reporting of the media output analysed is representative of the media as a whole and that the lack of analytical articles (at least in the first 9 months of coverage) has resulted in a group of young adults who seem susceptible to misinformation. But given the huge differentiation when it comes to the media, the lack of consistent correlation, the small number of focus groups and the many other information sources that exist apart from the ones analysed, this cannot be done. There are opportunities here for further research.