TERRORISM AND THE MEDIA
"When war becomes a spectator sport, the media becomes the decisive theater of operations" (Michael Ignatieff)
There are numerous ways to approach the academic study of terrorism and the media, or the way terrorists are portrayed in the media (called mediated terrorism). Many scholars from different disciplines as well as self-made experts opine on the subject, and they all seem to be stumbling toward a shot at inventing the next paradigm or model. Currently, one can count at least 14 different models, although any list would be subject to rapid change and inevitable turf battles over who owns what. Here's a list. There is the field of rhetoric's "propaganda" approach, the sociological "spectacle" approach, the psychological "cross-cultural" approach, the communications studies "constructivist" approach, the economics "damage" approach, the military studies "instrument of war" approach, the homeland security "risk" approach, the terrorism studies "war of ideas" approach, the public policy "information management" approach, the political science "opinion control" approach, the humanist "enigma" approach, the journalistic "media watch" approach, the justice studies "ethics" approach, the international relations "intercultural" approach, and the functionalist "narrative" approach, to name a few. As previously stated, it's not exactly clear who owns what. The identification of approaches here is NOT based on any formal self-identification (by academic field) but instead, reflects the author's subjective assessment based on repeated word associations in the relevant literatures. In any event, none of the academic fields really have a good handle on the subject.
The criminological perspective, at least according to Robinson (2011), holds that, regarding terrorism, media coverage is quite similar to their typical coverage of crime and criminal justice -- a focus on violence, an exaggerated risk of victimization, ignorant of causes and effects, and neglectful of context. American media, in particular, does a poor job of covering foreign affairs or world events (Ridout et al. 2008), and domestic terrorism (in all its varieties) tends to attract the interest of Americans more than international terrorism. However, the attacks on America of 9/11 resulted in a great deal of pro-war, fear mongering among the media (Altheide 2006) instead of what the media should have focused on -- the nature of the attack, its potential impacts, and the identities of the perpetrators (Meyer 2006). For example, just saying the perpetrators were "muslims" produced a good deal of anti-Muslim backlash, and polls began to show Americans were willing to sacrifice civil liberties to deal with this occidental threat. Pro-war voices dominated the media after 9/11, and misconceptions arose in the public's mind about the need to counterattack Iraq first. A study by the Program on International Policy at the University of Maryland (Kull et al. 2003) reported that 53% of Americans came to believe there was a link between al Qaeda and Iraq, that weapons of mass destructions existed there, and world opinion favored a U.S. invasion; but these misperceptions varied depending on news source, with viewers of Fox most likely to have at least one misperception (80%), followed by CBS (71%), ABC (61%), NBC and CNN (55%), print sources only (47%), and listeners of NPR and PBS (23%). Media coverage of Afghanistan has been arguably better, but still, media coverage of terrorism is perhaps best characterized as schizophrenic, where intense, selected focus coexists side-by-side with disparate, almost purposeful neglect. Some things are covered (and covered very well), but a lot more is missing from the picture. News is, of course, a business, and the media probably has every right to scoop one another in order to drive ratings and increase viewers. However, when political violence like terrorism is involved, the coverage is almost always going to have some political or ideological overtones, and the risk of manipulation will be great.
The History of Media Manipulation
|In his book entitled The Commissar Vanishes (NY: Metropolitan), author David King (1997) provides vivid proof of the extent to which dictators will try to manipulate a country's memory. The photo at right shows what happened to Commissar Yezhov, head of the secret police, after he lost favor among Stalin in 1939. Stalin not only had the guy shot, but tried to wipe out every record of his existence. Documents were altered, photographs were retouched, and even family members were threatened with replacement by doubles if they didn't play along. "We can always find another widow for Lenin" so said Stalin to Lenin's real widow, whom he hated. As a type of media manipulation, what Stalin did is a blatant example of censorship (the removal or withholding of information from the public). Over time, media manipulation outgrew such crude antics, but then entered a phase characterized by propaganda (presenting some facts to the public), and then came to embrace distraction (by semantics, straw man or dummy issues), and then damage control and spin doctoring ("optimizing" information for the public), culminating in modern demographic audience targeting (e.g., white males 18-49, soccer moms, NASCAR dads). Point is: the media have been manipulated in numerous ways, for a long time, by various parties, and are indeed easy targets for manipulation for numerous reasons: history, bias, non-transparency, an attraction to memes (cultural icons from memetic memory), and an irresistable impulse to cover exactly the kind of photo-ops and publicity stunts that terrorists provide. The media is not a mirror of society, but a tool which can abuse the way our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced and shaped. Today's media present problems far beyond doctored photographs.|
An early effort to synthesize the terrorism and media literature can be found in Signorielli & Gerbner (1988). There have been few subsequent attempts. One should not expect to find anything in print or online which organizes the literature in any systematic fashion. Such a project might be very well impossible. In this lecture, the scope is more or less restricted to the Internet than any other form of media. Also, quite a bit of space is devoted to discussion of two contemporary scholars in this area of study: Nacos (2007) and Weimann (2006), each of whom represent somewhat different directions, and are likely to be the first two names any beginning researcher will encounter. By no means is it suggested that these two authors ought to be your only guides to study. In fact, just the opposite, as this lecture critiques them quite strongly. Since this area of study is highly disorganized and constantly changing, the best that can probably be hoped for is to outline some of the major research questions that have endured over time.
SOME MAJOR RESEARCH QUESTIONS
Why is television reporting on terrorism so bad? This question arises because it seems like television (as a media) is no longer interested in analytical reporting. Ramonet (2002) says that journalists have long since been replaced by businessmen in the top media executive world, and that such businessmen justify their shoddy and sloppy reporting by claims they are promoting "emotional intelligence" which may be the latest window-dressing for "if it bleeds, it leads." As people like Postman (1985) and Bok (1999) have warned us, the new mix of news, violence, and entertainment may very well be our Brave New World's soma, the wonder-drug that leaves us shallow and intellectually numb. Television (as a media) singularly hopes to retain its top spot as the leader or trend-setter among all media, and it does this by focusing precisely upon the spectacular. Television was the first consumer mass market media device for visual displays, so focus on the visible is to be expected. During "sweeps" months (February, May, July, and November), it is not unusual to see a high amount of special series, investigative reports, and other things designed to be spectacular. Television is also quite effective as a selling device. Thirty seconds of air time for commercial purposes costs so much money because Nielsen ratings (which determine advertising rates) are quite effective (even using non-random sampling) at figuring out viewer demographics and market segments where products or services easily sell. Other than the constant selling, television has been criticized for its gratuitous sex and violence; in fact, to the point where some social scientists say television addiction is very real (Csikszentmihalyi 2002) and Media Induced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (MIPTSD) is a real possibility (Gerbner & Morgan 2002). Although many social scientists support a link between watching television and engaging in violence (Anderson et. al. 2003), other social scientists (Huesmann & Taylor 2003) say the link is not well established due to mediating variables being poorly understood.
Are the new media phenomena called blogs any better than traditional media? Personally, I find them quite informative. Many bloggers have written books about how politically significant blogs have become since they first started appearing around 2001 and subsequently brought down Trent Lott, John Kerry, and Dan Rather thru investigative reporting. Hugh Hewitt (2006) triumphs how blogs have replaced Main Stream Media (MSM), and UT law professor Glenn Reynolds (2007), who runs Instapundit which practically invented the genre, praises the citizen activism that blogs permit. Specifically, blogs allow the "average little guy" to become a citizen terrorist-buster, a hacker, or agent of influence. The blogosphere has spawned such things as phony jihad sites to foil terrorism, exposure and translation of terrorist websites (e.g., MEMRI), intelligence analysis of terrorist media outputs (e.g., SITE Institute), and various forms of counter-cyberjihad (e.g., JawaReport). In many cases, the bloggers seem to be doing what DHS is unwilling or incapable of doing, the online battle being fought by such people as JawaReport's Dr. Rusty "John Doe" Shackleford (pseudonym). Regardless of what one calls the blogs -- political commentary, grassroots journalism, or digital communities -- there's no denying they have made a difference. Many blogs, like the DEBKAfile and LauraMansfield, are known for delivering news not available anywhere else and frequently in anticipation of major events.
Do terrorism and the media have a symbiotic relationship? Symbiosis is a word meaning an association or relationship of mutual benefit, and this question arises because numerous commentators have said things like "the media are the terrorist's best friends" (Laqueur 1976), "terrorism is a product of freedom, particularly freedom of the press" (Jenkins 1983), and "media publicity is the raison d'etre of modern terrorism" (Nacos 1994). When the symbiosis thesis was first suggested by Wardlaw in 1982, the idea was simply that publicity makes terrorism worse, and the clear counterterrorism implication was to starve them of publicity, but years of research have found no empirical proof for this idea and no need to regulate the media (Picard 1993). In fact, some research suggests that depriving terrorists of publicity actually makes the terrorism worse (Alali & Eke 1991), but it should be carefully noted that this research is quite dated by now. It is now conventional wisdom that terrorism doesn't depend for its success on media coverage, and that terrorist goals like respectability and legitimacy are only sporadically achieved via media coverage (Nacos 1994). Most modern terrorists appear to prefer letting their explosions speak for themselves (i.e., anonymous terrorism), and only a few groups actively try to exploit the media. Insurgents, in fact, are even more distrustful of the media than terrorists (Irwin 1992). So, while different types of terrorists may have different tastes for the media, terrorists and the media, in general have common interests. At least that's the "Yes" answer to our question by economists Bruno Frey and Dominic Rohner who say it's not just symbiosis, but hyper-symbiosis.
Is the media a menace during wartime? Information denial during wartime is, of course, a vital political-military function, as is disinformation, but sometimes governments can go overboard and be their own menace. The Pentagon may shut down all media access on fear of a "Vietnam effect" which is Pentagon jargon for the idea that the media caused the U.S. loss in Vietnam, or politicians may use the media to lie and manipulate. There is indeed a fundamental conflict between a government’s need to protect information and the media’s responsibility to report the news as fully and accurately as possible. Openness, or at least the appearance of openness with the media is the best government policy. On the other hand, the media is clearly a menace at times, for example, when hostages have been kidnapped by terrorists. Here, the media typically seems to relentlessly pursue what it calls the "human interest" story, complete only when pictures have been taken of relatives crying. Worse yet, the media often jeopardize hostage safety by broadcasting personal information, and/or becoming a party to the negotiations (Paletz & Tawney 1992). Then comes video of the grisly beheadings posted on YouTube or worse yet, LiveLeak (hosted in the UK and of late infested with Mujahideen wannabes where every third video is an IED attack, suicide bombing or some "benevolent" explanation about the "true beauty of Islam"). It sometimes seems that when something gets old, terrorists use the media to come up with something even more awful. The media should never be in the business of burying bad news, but some amount of decency and good judgment should be expected. Hess & Kalb 2003) provide a good one-word summary of the way the media operates during wartime as "confused."
THE CALCULUS APPROACH
One could go on and on listing research questions, but it's time to delve into some fresh perspectives, and two of them will be discussed here. The first will be what has come to be called the "calculus" approach, associated with the work of Brigitte Nacos, particularly Nacos (2003), and the second will be the "constructivist" or "symbolic communication" approach, associated with the work of Gabriel Weimann, particularly Weimann (2006). As previously stated, these two writers are considered the leading scholars in the field. The "calculus" approach has found some positive reception in the field of justice studies, but as will be seen, is not limited to an "ethics" perspective, but draws somewhat upon military and terrorism studies approaches with a bit of globalization theory thrown in. The word "calculus" in its simplest meaning is that terrorists use publicity goals to achieve other goals, or in other words, purposely counter-manipulate the media simultaneously in conjunction with other purposes. Warning: we'll delve into the meaning of calculus a bit deeper than Nacos (2007) is willing or able to go.
Warning given: here it is, the MATHEMATICS OF CALCULUS. As early as when mathematicians first noticed how light would slow down in water, puzzled over how to divide something by zero, or wondered how to sum infinitely small numbers, the idea of calculus was born. The basic idea is that there is no infinitesimal "smallest" number just as there is no "last" biggest number. Instead, there are only "limits" which describe behavior or functions that "get close" to some point. By using limits, calculus helps estimate how a function changes when its inputs change (i.e., the derivative, which is the purpose of differential calculus since the process of finding a derivative is called differentiation). Differential calculus helps estimate the high (maxima) and low (minima) points of a phenomenon. The other branch of calculus, called integral calculus, represents a new way of adding numbers to achieve a sum. Infinite sums are traditionally thought of as a continuous series (often represented by a punctuation mark known as the ellipsis, or dot, dot, dot; e.g., . . . ). However, it is only logical that things can't go on forever, so anything continuous must be eventually bound by time and may very well have some topological (geometric) shape or feature to its pattern. Knowing whether something has the shape of a triangle, a rectangle, or a parallelogram will reveal its vector space, or as integral calculus calls it, the "total amount" of a property. The cool thing is, this property can be always changing, as in the famous "area under the curve" example. (end of MATHEMATICS lecture)
Now, what's this all got to do with terrorism and the media? Consider for a moment that both terrorism and media coverage of it ranges from infinitesimally small "rare events" to those really bad days when terrorism news is saturating the airways. In other words, there might be near-zero events one day and wave after wave of events the next. Wouldn't you want to know the derivative (high and low points), and wouldn't you also want to know the integral (shape or pattern) of terrorism? It turns out that calculus provides applications for this, in the form of mathematical counterterrorism, a field that seems to be suffering from a lack of practitioners which is a charitable way of saying it hasn't been invented yet. One might think that the optimal solution to a series of simultaneous attacks is a series of simultaneous defenses, and on a scale of 0 to 1 assign the value 1 to this scenario, but there may be many different continuous fronts in the war on terrorism, so perhaps a value of 0.96999 might be good enough. Calculus is the method for discovering how close you can get to mathematical limits in complicated situations and for all practical purposes say that the function has reached its limit.
Nacos (2003) does not use any mathematics at all in her approach, and admittedly, she appears to be using the word "calculus" as a metaphor. However, the metaphor could be made stronger if more of the logic behind the mathematics were added. Anyway, here's how she puts it. Osama bin Laden dispatched his 9/11 hijackers in the same way as he "dispatches" messages in his speeches and video. Terrorism, for bin Laden, is a way to dispatch messages, and sometimes a lot of messages are released and sometimes there's no word from him at all. Terrorists assumed that Americans would get the message, but simultaneous messages were also sent to the rest of the Arab world. It is no coincidence, Nacos (2003) says, that the successful 9/11 attack was followed six months later by a wave of "human bomb" attacks against Israelis by Palestinian groups. At about the same time, the successful U.S. mounting of a military campaign in Afghanistan in response to 9-11 hurt Osama bin Laden’s reputation among Arabs and Muslims. The U.S. seems to be in a "no-win" situation. If bin Laden is brought to justice and put on trial, that would provide him with a platform for global propaganda. If, instead, he is assassinated, he will become a martyr. If he escapes, he will become a Robin Hood. It seems bin Laden cannot lose in this war on terror. What should the U.S. do? What should the media do? In true justice studies fashion, Nacos (2003) suggests staying calm and getting politicians to be more open and honest in their communications.
Nacos (2007) develops her framework a bit more in a later book called "media-mediated" terrorism. The phrase "media-mediated" may seem redundant, but generally refers to how the media has conditioned us into pseudo-knowledge about terrorism. From this point of view, the media has always been about distortion, and the terrorists know this as well as anyone else. What irony then that the very terrorists who loathed America’s pop culture as decadent and poisonous turned the 9/11 attack into a Hollywood-like horror fantasy spectacular. Would they have achieved the same effect at nighttime? Was it the bright sunshine of that day which guaranteed the spectacular? Or was it that the terrorists were counting on the media to open all their gates for an abundant wellspring of generous news coverage? In this new age of megaterrorism, terrorism is a psychological weapon which depends and relies upon communicating to a wide topography of audience. Publicity via the mass media is not an end in itself, but a means to more important ends, like the attention of others and a status of prominence for their leaders. It's more than symbiosis, and more than theater. Terrorists have always had a symbiotic relationship with the media. Even before the printing press, terrorists struck targets in crowded places so that news could spread mouth-to-mouth. Later, terrorists printed their own pamphlets, posters, and newspapers. Some built their own radio and television stations. But only modern megaterrorists have relied on the media for multiple purposes like they are doing nowadays, and those purposes are: attention-getting; intimidation, or fear of more terrorism to come; and turning terrorist leaders into superstars. Spectacular events turn notorious bad guys into leading newsmakers -- indeed, into the world's leading newsmakers -- for far more than their 15 minutes of fame. In short, the media has made it possible for anybody to become famous. No greater transformer of ordinary street thugs into something quasi-reputable has ever existed, and quasi-legitimacy is about the limit for what any terrorist group can hope for these days.
THE SYMBOLIC COMMUNICATION APPROACH
The field of communication theory has been called the study of "who says what to whom in what channel with what effect," and although there are few well-developed paradigms in the field, many communication scholars (e.g., Weimann 2006) believe that modern terrorism is best studied via the framework of symbolic communication theory (e.g. Dowling 1986). Of particular interest to most scholars in this area is the Internet, with practitioners finding it ironic that a network originally built to provide continuity of operations in case of Soviet attack is now used to proliferate pornographic, racist, and terrorist content. Analysis of terrorist websites is the main methodology used by researchers in this area of study.
The approach is built upon a "terrorism as theater" conceptualization (e.g., Weimann & Winn 1994), which means that the analogy of a theatrical production is used, complete with components of script preparation, cast selection, sets, props, role-playing, and stage management. The idea that terrorism can be looked at from a theatrical point of view is not new, being an idea that originated in the 1970s (Jenkins 1975; Bell 1978). What is new is the idea that modern Western media provide an irresistible allure or attraction for obscure guerrillas to emerge on the world stage as potent beings to be reckoned with, and further, to fine-tune or calibrate the publicity impact by manipulating the media reaction. Whether or not terrorists are smart enough to do this or just frantically thrashing around is an issue that has been debated ever since Schmid & de Graaf (1982), and the issue is a central research question in symbolic communication theory.
Terrorist rhetoric (rhetoric being the mastery of persuasive or competitive speech) tends to be recurrent rather than adaptive. They say the same things over in pretty much the same ways. All that seems to vary is the target audience, the effect, and the channel of communication. Of these, the channel is perhaps most significant. Terrorists choose the Internet precisely because it is an uncensored, unregulated, and free channel of communication. It is also a channel which is fairly easy to use, and there's already some built-in fear surrounding the Internet to begin with. From a theatrical studies point of view, no actor could ask for a better stage prop. As Cromer (2006) points out, terrorists tend to construct narratives or dialogues which portray themselves in a mythic, sacred, or cosmic light, and then the media is naturally drawn to this story-like narrative, and passes along the neutralizations and labels that the terrorists use (e.g., the language of non-responsibility; condemnation of the condemner; religious inspiration; etc.)
Numerous terrorist organization have embraced cyberspace and created Internet sites. Tsfati & Weimann (2002) speculate that only the most sophisticated and psychologically healthy terrorist groups put up websites on the Internet. This is to say that the more criminal or psychopathic groups are usually absent from the Internet, but it is not to say that some groups on the Internet have engaged in horrific crimes. Some groups have more than one Internet website. Unofficial websites abound, but the main one (the "Homepage") is usually characterized by two features -- one, the equipment and technical expertise are provided by supporters of the terrorist group; and two, the content is manufactured and delivered by the operational terrorists from the scene of the crime. Almost all terrorist websites detail their goals in some way, and many give detailed background information about the history of the group. Rarely are gruesome photos or accounts of their bloodshed provided. Often, they expound at length about the moral legitimacy of their cause, and this kind of content is aimed directly at potentially sympathetic Western audiences. The kind of content targeted for domestic supporters usually consists of items about political prisoners or political corruption which is intended to embarrass local governments. Terrorist use of the Internet often involves highly visual and auditory elements. They all seem extremely interested in logos and emblems, and a few of the more sophisticated websites have speeches, poetry, and music for downloading. Some engage in frequent fauxtography, and a small number have online gift shops. It's radical chic.
THE SINISTER MANIPULATION OF THE MEDIA
It used to be, a long time ago, that terrorist groups issued communiqués and took responsibility for their acts. This is not common nowadays. No matter how much the media would like it to be, terrorist groups do not have traditional methods of issuing press releases nor typical ways of using spokespersons. Terrorist use the media today is characterized by sinister manipulation of the media. They have outsmarted the media. The media have bought into this and either support the shifting of blame directly (as when Reuters refused to use the "T" word to describe the 9/11 attack) or inadvertently (by reproducing terrorist touched-up "fauxtography"). Who really has the upper hand? The media profits by making more money than all the terrorists in the world could ever hope to make, and the terrorists benefit by manipulating viewers in democratic societies to favor their cause. As Jeffrey Simon (1994) stated in The Terrorist Trap, terrorism has always been ahead of the media technology of its time. In the future, look for terrorist use of the media to not only shape public opinion, but influence elections, public policy, foreign policy, and a whole host of consumer behaviors.
The Internet seems to offer numerous ways for terrorists to get ahead. Abdul Bakier (2006) of the Jamestown Foundation has documented Islamist offensive behavior via the Internet in the form of "electronic jihad" which is a type of cyber-warfare (cyberjihad) in which jihadists and jihadist sympathizers come together to hack what they perceive as anti-Islamic websites. It is also the case that Islamist websites exist for recruitment (Bakier 2006), enticing young recruits into the al-Qaeda ideology every day, all cleverly orchestrated by as-Sahab, al-Qaeda's nebulous media production wing. The model al-Qaeda uses is based primarily upon showing videos, of which Bakier (2006) identifies four types:
training videos -- explanations of how to make bombs and explosives
operational videos -- showing how the enemy is vulnerable
speeches -- full-length speeches the media sometimes edits
photography -- often fauxtography of innocents killed by the enemy
Jihadi websites are usually up one day and down the next. Hence, it serves no useful purpose in trying to list them as the URLs seem to change constantly. During or before a website goes down, there is usually another URL mentioned, and often these external hyperlinks are permanent, and these "other sites" are typically chat rooms or discussion forum sites. The al-Qaeda model seems to include the necessity for a seasoned "recruiter" to chat with or talk to any prospective recruit. Once the recruit has been spoken with, they are directed to yet more "other sites" for indoctrination in religious ideology. At various points along the line, the recruit is selected for operational purposes or assigned to any of a number of support roles. Often, selection for an operational role can be "bought" by making substantial donations. The directions on how to transfer funds are not provided until contact is made somehow and after a vetting process takes place.
Jihadist speeches appear to contain code pictures and code language which often baffle authorities. The typical al-Qaeda pattern is to repeat something three times, like "Have I not conveyed?" which may signal that a sleeper cell should spring into action. Osama bin Laden's videos can be classified into the "white turban/dark turban" category, the color of the turban presumably having different meaning. The al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) method as well as the predominant Palestinian method is to reverse some image of something (usually a gun, flag, or logo) in the video or picture. Videos appear not only on websites, but on blogs and video-sharing sites, like YouTube, LiveLeak, and GoogleVideo. Most of the videos posted on YouTube regularly feature al-Qaeda's two broadcast anchors, Libyan firebrand Abu Laith al-Libi and American fugitive, Adam Yehiye Gadahn. On the blogs, al-Qaeda has instructed its followers to engage in "media jihad" which involves a set of commands that authorities have intercepted and goes as follows:
Al-Qaeda Instructions for Media Jihad
|There is no doubt, my brothers, that raiding American forums is among the most important means of obtaining victory in the fierce media war... and of influencing the views of the weak-minded American who pays his taxes so they will go to the infidel American army. This American is an idiot and does not [even] know where Iraq is... [It is therefore] mandatory for every electronic mujahid [to engage in this raiding]. It is better that you raid non-political forums such as music forums and trivia forums... which American people... favor... Define your target[ed forum]... and get to know it well... Post your contribution and do not get into... futile arguments.... Obviously, you have to register yourself using a purely American name... Choose an icon that indicates you are an American, and place it next to your nickname [in the forum]. Obviously, you should post your contribution... as an American... You should correspond with visitors to this forum, [bringing to their attention] the frustrating situation of their troops in Iraq... You should invent stories about American soldiers you have [allegedly] personally known (as classmates... or members in a club who played baseball and tennis with you) who were drafted to Iraq and then committed suicide while in service by hanging or shooting themselves.... Write using a sad tone, and tell them that you feel sorry for your [female] neighbor or co-worker who became addicted to alcohol or drugs... because her poor fiancé, a former soldier in Iraq, was paralyzed or [because] his legs were amputated... [Use any story] which will break their spirits, oh brave fighter for the sake of God.... You should enter into debate or respond only if it is extremely necessary... Your concern should [only] be introducing topics which... will cause [them to feel] frustration and anger towards their government..., which will... render them hostile to Bush... and his Republican Party and make them feel they must vote to bring the troops back from Iraq as soon as possible. Do not... discuss issues pertaining to Arabs or Muslims at all, whether negatively or positively... because this could be a trap for you... In addition, do not ask people to circulate the material [you have posted] in other forums... as these types of requests will expose you....|
The above was found during April 2007 on the Al-Mohajroon Islamist website with the username Al-Wathig Billah providing the instructions on how to infiltrate popular American Internet forums and use them to spread anti-war sentiments. Unfortunately, there's more. According to a 2007 Task Force Special Report on Internet-Facilitated Terrorism [available via GWU here as pdf or here as html], raids of terrorist safe houses have yielded stacks of DVDs, CDs, VHS tapes, and VCDs, all of which not only contain the "usual" videos, but "new" sophisticated ones, in Arabic, featuring the dubbed, subtitled, or original acts of hip-hop and rap musicians whose catchy, melodic messages contain jihadist calls to violence. For example, one popular figure is the rapper "Sheikh Terra" who sings with a gun in one hand and a Qur’an in the other.
Maras (2013) maintains that use of modern electronic media is an essential part of the maintenance of any modern terrorist organization. Terrorist propaganda is definitely spreading on the Internet, such as the snazzy Inspire Magazine, Sawt al Jihad (The Voice of Jihad), Al Battar (al-Qaeda's military manual), Al Khansaa (an al-Qaeda women's magazine), and http://tawhed.ws (which contains numerous books on al-Qaeda strategy and ideology). Exploitation of the Internet is a good tool of psychological warfare because it encourages an audience of sympathizers to take action, or at the very least, to intensify their anger.
TOWARD EFFECTIVE COUNTER-STRATEGY
There isn't much that the U.S. government can do, and there's certainly less it can do without international cooperation. The Internet does not have a police agency. In a few cases, criminal prosecution can occur because the incitement to violence is so extreme that it crosses the line past free speech. In other cases, the laws of material support for terrorism can be enforced, and in such cases, the Treasury Department could use the tool of labeling someone or something a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity under Executive Order 13224 (see State Dept. explanation of SDGT and other obscure terrorist lists). Another federal initiative could involve an agency like the U.S. Air Force which could create a Cyber Command which will, among other things, work to defeat terrorists by disrupting the web sites they use for training and recruiting. This would likely supplement the numerous amount of "citizen activism" that is already taking place at the grassroots counterterrorism and digital forensics levels. A significant cyberwar seems to be coming and it is just as important to understand the battlefield as much as to understand the enemy.
As a practical matter, however, it is just plain impossible to completely squelch an extremist presence online. It is like a game of whack-a-mole, where you knock down one site only to find another pop up elsewhere. An effective counter-strategy should never include stripping people of their right to communicate ideas on the Internet. Instead, vigilance and prudence are called for. An effective counter-strategy should be based on monitoring and intercepting the worst examples of radicalization attempts, making examples out of them, but taking the high road in the upcoming cyberjihad and counter-cyberjihad 2.0 war of ideas. Much like the aforementioned Task Force Report suggested, a counter-narrative needs to be developed and deployed on the Internet to challenge the sinister lies and deceptions that terrorists put out there. In the end, all that there is to counter rhetoric is more rhetoric. In order to win a war of ideas, one has to have better ideas, or at least an idea. This is not as simple as it sounds. America is a pluralist society which stands for a lot of things, and it is extraordinarily difficult to develop a broad consensus about what America stands for without some people (Americans included) ridiculing or mocking those things because they have the freedom to do so. Getting a counter-narrative or counter-rhetoric to the target population is also problematic. Nearly half of the Muslim world (the intended target population) is illiterate. They have to have the Koran read to them, and blindly trust their leaders and "elites" to do the thinking for them. Hence, delivering a counter-narrative to the masses would have to be greatly simplified to something along the lines of TV cartoon shows. Reaching out with one's best, expressed ideas should aim for receipt by the elites. If the elite mindset can be changed, the masses might follow.
THE LEAKING OF CLASSIFIED INFORMATION
The media always gets their best scoops from leaks, and they enjoy some fairly high-level protection (shielding) from having to disclose their sources. However, there are some cases where the leaking of classified information and its reporting borders on criminal conduct. The issue is complicated by questions about whom to blame -- the media, for releasing the information -- or the faceless bureaucrats who think they are furthering their private agendas through leaking information to their friends in the media. These issues deserve more attention and critical scrutiny than the usual discourse about freedom of the press. In recent times, Wikileaks has captured much attention, and serves as a modern example of an issue or problem which needs addressed.
First of all, it is a felony to leak certain kinds of classified information under the espionage statutes passed by Congress. Section 793 of federal espionage law prohibits authorized persons possessing "information relating to the national defense which information the possessor has reason to believe could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of any foreign nation . . . " from disclosing it to persons not entitled to it. Section 798 of the espionage law prohibits the disclosure of classified communications intelligence activities to unauthorized persons "in any manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States or for the benefit of any foreign government to the detriment of the United States." Moreover, under the basic federal aiding and abetting statute -- 18 U.S.C. S 2 -- the media who leaks is as punishable as the principal who originally disclosed the information. There's no shortage of laws to crackdown on leaking; there's just a seemingly unwillingness to use them. Since 2008, there have only been five prosecutions, and those were under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (Public Law 97-200 50 U.S.C. S421-426).
The Intelligence Identities Protection Act
|It is a crime for anyone with classified information to intentionally or systematically identify and expose covert agents and have reason to believe it will harm the foreign intelligence activities of the U.S. unless the United States has publicly acknowledged or revealed the relationship. This law was written primarily to protect CIA agents and a major impetus were the leaks committed by Philip Agee, a notorious KGB mole who worked for the CIA during the 1960s and 1970s. Agee escaped prosecution by fleeing to Cuba. In 1985, a female CIA secretary in Ghana was convicted for revealing the names of spies to her boyfriend. In 2003, the Valerie Plame affair resulted in the conviction of Scooter Libby, among other things. In 2011, a couple of journalists were threatened with lawsuit by the CIA, but they leaked the information out anyway, making it look like an anonymous viral YouTube video. In 2013, former CIA officer John Kiriakou was convicted for leaking covert identities to New York Times reporters because he wanted to raise his media profile in order to increase his consulting fees and profit from a book he planned to write.|
Beyond the difficulty of trying to get someone convicted for leaking, there is the questionable constitutionality of those laws depending upon what theory of the free press one subscribes to. Under the most constitutionally acceptable understanding of the law, a reporter or representative of the media can ONLY be held accountable if they showed "a concerted effort toward discovering or revealing the identities of covert agents." The most theoretically relevant case is New York Times v. U.S. (1971), also known as the Pentagon Papers Case, where the Court basically held to a "no prior restraint" by the government against the media, which means that any reporter who receives classified information should know better, and turn the classified material over to authorities. It may be time to reconsider this idea that journalism should be a self-regulating profession; that they should just turn themselves in whenever they find themselves caught up in something illegal. Regardless, the Pentagon Papers Case also had important concurring but dissenting opinions, and the following were some things the Justices thought were very clear and should result in prosecutions: photographs or drawings of military installations; cryptographic systems or communication intelligence activities; and any information obtained from communication intelligence operations. The Pentagon Papers Case is still good law, and a subsequent case appears to give the press even more authority unto itself. For example, in Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001), the Court held that the First Amendment protected the publication of lawfully obtained information that was itself obtained illegally. The Court held that federal law making it a crime to intercept and disseminate telephone conversations cannot constitutionally be applied to the media when they report on matters of public concern. This means that reporters enjoy a certain amount of constitutional immunity as long as they were not involved in the original, illegal obtaining of the classified information.
The end result is a situation where reporters (and their editors) have to satisfy themselves as to whether publication damages national security, and to prosecute, the government has to prove some damage to national security (a heavy burden since rarely would any government want to go to trial with this where the legal process would force more information to light than the government would want anybody to know). Reporters who come into possession of classified material need to screen that material to make sure nothing technical gets out. Redacting such technical matters is one thing, but even when a story gets out -- any story -- clearly terrorists are smart enough to modify their behavior, and to take action which hampers efforts to keep track of them, not because they know the details, but because they have just found out a new way the government is on to them.
Accuracy in Media
ADL Report: Jihad Online (pdf)
Al-Qaeda and the Internet
Arab Media and Society
Brookings Project on Role of Press in Antiterrorism
Center for Media and Public Affairs
Coalition Against Terrorist Media
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GWU Homeland Security Policy Institute
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Media Research Center
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Shannen Rossmiller Website
Terrorist Dependence upon Media Cooperation
What Terrorists Want from the Media
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Last updated: Mar. 06, 2013
Not an official webpage of APSU, copyright restrictions apply, see Megalinks in Criminal Justice
O'Connor, T. (2013). "Terrorism and the Media," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from http://www.drtomoconnor.com/3400/3400lect07.htm.