In his controversial speech to U.S. Congress last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that Iran is a more dangerous threat than ISIS. Iran, he argued, could potentially be armed with a nuclear weapon, while ISIS is armed with “butcher knives, captured weapons and YouTube.”
Surprisingly, the latter weapon has been ISIS’s strongest tool in recruiting people and achieving worldwide notoriety. They're masters of social media, making high-quality videos and distributing them online for anyone to watch. They even have recognizable individuals in front of the camera — Jihadi John’s name is well-known in the Western world.
Today, another disturbing ISIS video was released online. It depicts a young boy, reportedly around the age of 12, wearing camouflage gear that matches the older ISIS militant standing next to him. The young boy ends up shooting and killing their hostage — 19-year-old accused Israeli spy Muhammad Said Ismail Musallam.
This particular execution has been in the news because of the fact that the killer is so young. Media outlets have been using the story to report ISIS’s practice of recruiting and training young children to become sympathetic to their cause. The group even opened two English-language schools in its de-facto capital city of Raqqa.
What many of these media outlets miss or choose to ignore is that ISIS intended the video to be shocking. They want people posting these videos and talking about them. They’re marketing geniuses, and they know how to manipulate the power of media — both traditional and social — in order to further their agenda.
Reporting on ISIS and openly discussing the significance of their actions is important. When it comes to posting actual execution videos, however, many media outlets risk crossing into dangerous moral territory. The videos drive clicks for publications while exposing the horrors of ISIS, but they also give the group the exact attention that they crave.
A search for “ISIS execution” on YouTube returns more than 40,000 results. Not all of them, of course, are actual executions. But many of them are. Some of them are hosted by major news companies — CBS, Al-Jazeera, etc. The more traditional media outlets typically censor these videos or remove them completely, but they still draw attention to the fact that they exist.
It’s difficult to say what the best approach to dealing with sensationalist groups like ISIS should be. If you reduce the attention they receive, you also reduce their power. But if you ignore them, then you’re depriving the world of the honest exposure of truth. The world should know about the atrocities that ISIS is committing, but the popularity of their videos only causes them to keep making more.