A few weeks ago, as the tide of the coronavirus pandemic began crashing down on Western countries, a provocative news story broke through the clamor and went viral in dozens of outlets. The strange headlines stated that the terrorist group Islamic State had issued a travel warning urging its fighters to avoid going to Europe due to the outbreak of the coronavirus. Citing a “full-page infographic” posted on a newsletter associated with the group, ISIS had allegedly told its members “to put trust in God and seek refuge in Him from illnesses,” prudently advising them to wash their hands and stay out of areas where the disease had spread.
Under normal circumstances, even absent a global pandemic, an obscure message published in the foreign-language newsletter of a militant group should be unlikely to gain much traction in a fierce global attention economy. But ISIS has always been catnip for journalists.
If you’re trying to grow a political movement or even just keep it alive, attention is your oxygen.
From Politico to The Independent to the New York Daily News, the odd news about ISIS responding to the coronavirus was picked up and amplified across the world. It would not be hard to imagine that tens of millions of people saw the story — making it an impressive return on investment for an infographic that likely cost nothing to make.
If you’re trying to grow a political movement, or even just keep it alive, attention is your oxygen. And, for some time now, the media has been acting as a ventilator: amplifying the most obscure and ridiculous ISIS propaganda in what genuinely seems like an attempt to wish it back into prominence. This hunger for the notoriety the group provided is an advantage that ISIS supporters seem to have learned to capitalize on, producing content to keep its public image alive even as most of its members have been killed and its real-world power mostly destroyed.
Writing in The Atlantic as far back as 2017, Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, noted the group’s skill at turning the media’s hunger for infamy into a weapon. “For ISIS, provided it’s on the propagandists’ terms and conveys the group’s purported strength and omnipresence, any coverage is good coverage,” Winter wrote. “In that sense, ISIS terrorism doesn’t end when a bomb detonates. Rather, it continues for hours, days, and weeks after, living on through the media.”
During the period when ISIS actually was setting off bombs and carrying out attacks in Western cities, the group was able to win attention for its cause through what other long-ago terrorists and anarchists called “propaganda of the deed.” At its peak, there was genuine newsworthiness in ISIS’s novel use of highly produced visuals to promote themselves. Over the past few years, however, journalists have had to go out of their way to gin up propaganda for the group as its attacks become increasingly pathetic, and its actual organization reduced to an insurgency in the borderlands of Iraq and Syria.
As the actual ISIS has gone further into decline, news outlets in search of clicks — usually, but not always, tabloids — have had to dive deeper and deeper into the online dumpster heap to find provocations from the group’s supporters.
It’s not clear what effect distributing ISIS’s messages for it is having, but in the past we have seen people take inspiration from published material about the group. In the summer of 2016, after killing 49 people in an Orlando nightclub, Florida resident Omar Mateen called 911 and claimed that the attack had been a response to the death of “Abu Waheeb,” an ISIS commander who had become famous in the tabloid media after being mocked for looking like a rotisserie shawarma. No evidence has ever surfaced that Mateen had any actual contact with the group other than reading about it in the press.
Time has apparently not diminished ISIS’s media appeal. Last fall, the British media provided weeks of wall-to-wall coverage to a teenage ISIS captive held in Syria, even publishing exclusive stories providing readers with her opinions on recent negotiations over Brexit.
There’s a related phenomenon that should be familiar to many Americans: the 2016 election campaign of Donald Trump. As should be painfully familiar to everyone by now, the current president had never played any role in politics before his campaign. His entire campaign, admittedly an entertaining one, was dismissed by many at the time as a publicity stunt. The news media however could not get enough of him, giving copious airtime to broadcasting Trump’s provocations even as they became increasingly serious and making him perhaps the most-discussed person in the country.
In 2016, ex-CBS executive Les Moonves boasted that Trump’s campaign “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” The news media rewarded him well for being such a good showman. During the course of the election cycle, Trump was estimated to have received a staggering $5 billion in free media coverage. One cannot say that the media itself got Trump elected, but, given its role in keeping him front and center before the public for months and months, the media helped Trump achieve one of the most valuable goals of any political movement: keeping people’s attention.
Even as president, there is still a debate raging as to whether his daily updates on the coronavirus pandemic should be gifted with live, primetime news coverage. It’s a question worth keeping in mind when considering whose voices to elevate on a subject of global importance, whether we’re talking about irresponsible officeholders hawking untested coronavirus cures or supporters of a terrorist group trying to keep its cause alive by telling people to wash their hands.
“When you have millions of public voices as we have today because of digital connectivity, then attention becomes the most valuable thing you can garner,” said Martin Gurri, a former CIA media analyst and author of “The Revolt of the Public.” “It’s even more important than money because, in the end, if you can keep getting attention, you’ll probably wind up not just with money but with power as well.”