Most major media houses have policies on how much carnage they will display in videos or pictures. When it comes to gruesome Islamic State videos, they generally draw the line before a murder occurs.
Many analysts say that line should be moved way back. Others say IS media saturation has reached a tipping point, and the bloody videos are starting to backfire, harming the group they are meant to bolster.
“Every targeted country that the Islamic State brags about becomes more resolved to take on the Islamic State,” says Max Abrahms, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and political science professor at Northeastern University. “While it’s true that bragging about the violence over social media can be beneficial in terms of having a recruitment affect, there’s also a very substantial attrition effect.”
Foreign recruitment has been a large source of the Islamic State's power since it took over territories in Iraq and Syria a year ago, he adds, and those recruits were almost all found online. The “attrition effect” he mentions is Islamic State fighters that abandon IS, and those that want to but are forced to stay.
However, it’s not just people attracted to violence who have been taken in by IS media, according to Country Risk Solutions CEO Daniel Wagner. Young people seeking adventure and meaning are attracted to a wide range of IS media campaigns, he says.
“In one instance they’re killers, then they’re hedonists, then they’re freedom fighters,” adds Wagner. “They're appealing to such a broad range of people.”
However, the ISIS media team has made its biggest headlines from its most gruesome deeds, Wagner adds. For the past year, the mainstream media has publicized the gore and strengthened the group's image, he argues.
“If I had my way, they would be more judicious in what they chose to broadcast related to ISIS,” Wagner says. “For example, they wouldn’t be referencing beheading videos and they wouldn’t be talking about the latest outrageous act that the Islamic State has accomplished.”
The news business and consumers are both drawn to sensationalism, he says. “I don’t know who’s more to blame, the people who watch it or the people who broadcast it?”
Messages on social media
Social media sites like Twitter and YouTube have also been criticized for allowing Islamic State media to be disseminated through their sites, an issue that has divided many current U.S. leaders, pitting security against free expression in the debate.
But Abrahms argues that this debate may be continuing past its relevance. The diverse Islamic State messages on social media have been drowned out by the carnage and potential recruits that are adverse to violence are no longer being fooled, he says. Terrorist groups traditionally weaken from within, according to Abrahms.
“One of the main ways terrorist groups have gone out of business is by imploding, usually by using violence in excess and basically scaring off potential recruits,” he concludes.
However, there is evidence that IS leadership has also recognized that its media style needs to be reined in to move forward, says Wagner, and pragmatists at the top may be now discouraging lower level fighters from bragging about violence online. And this adaptability, he says, is part of the reason the group has grown so large, so quickly.
“The organization itself is attuned to nuance and attuned to reactions that they had not contemplated previously,” Wagner says. “And they’re adapting to it successfully.”