If the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) is to continue to fund its brutal excess, it might focus less on extortion and more on the export of its high-leverage marketing strategies. JWT could learn a thing or two about how to grow a micro-business into a corporate land army from a group whose use of social and now traditional media has become nonpareil. The Islamic State’s latest low-cost beheading campaign has gone, as they say, viral. A perfect 10 out of 10 for effective use of a truly guerrilla media technique. Rather less, perhaps, for taking a Game of Thrones episode to its real-life extreme.
The thing that makes this latest PR atrocity so peculiarly efficient is the response to it by much of Western media. The decision has been taken to boycott broadcast of the video and not at all, we’d guess, because of the reasoned plea by the mother of murdered journalist James Foley. And not because redistribution of the footage would be unethical, disrespectful or potentially beneficial to the recruiters of IS. If professional media were staffed by people who actually took the care not to amplify the cruelty of those fighting on the less-resourced side of an asymmetric war, we would never have seen 2996 souls perish live from New York City in 2001. We would never have seen Osama bin Laden speak. We would never have seen burning oil wells or enjoyed any of the other collusion by embedded journalists that reveals their terror and conceals our provocation of it.
This moratorium is not about morality. The appearance of taking a high road rarely travelled by electronic corporations conceals complicity in an act of suspense marketing. So long as the vicious end of James Foley’s life is not revealed, we’ll continue to watch numb analysis of IS hoping for an end, just like we did with Rhonda and Ketut.
Media can no longer afford to “manufacture consent”. They no longer act on behalf of a political class but on behalf of their own diminished interests; if these interests happen to coincide at times with political objectives, as they do in the current marriage of News Corp with the Abbott government, that’s just a happy accident.
But none of this stops consumers from holding up the mirror of morality to an industry that has long since shattered it and insisting that this grotesque moment of snuff be embargoed. Twitter, always certain of its own importance and fresh from showing us dead babies, has unleashed the hashtag #ISISMediaBlackout.
That’ll show ‘em.
“What is happening here is less a plea for ethics than it is a Western self-assurance that our way of murdering is more palatable and evolved.”
Except, of course, in the logic of late warfare, none of this moralising will make any difference. As any casual student of psychoanalysis knows, a veil over an object only stimulates desire for it. And this desire was born years ago due less to fundamentalist use of social media and much more to the brutality of Western warfare and sanctions that has a nation dwindled almost to an Afghanistan-sized nub of statehood. To blame the Koran for the caliphate insanity of IS — an organisation too extreme even for al-Qaeda’s tastes — is a bit like saying that Clive Palmer is responsible for anti-Chinese sentiment. This resentment is bigger than a book, a faith or even Clive Palmer.
It’s all very nice that Twitter and the traditional media with which it enjoys a fractious but ultimately synergistic relationship is coming across all Line In The Sand. But perhaps the work of truly devout advocates for peace should not be to suppress the incursions and crimes of IS but to demand a less propagandist account of what in heck our mob has been doing in the Gulf to provoke these crimes.
What is happening here is less a plea for ethics than it is a Western self-assurance that our way of murdering is more palatable and evolved. While it is likely true that the aim of IS is to goad for the ground war Obama has thus far refused, the reaction by many Westerners of goodwill to this video has been to prop the idea of our historical progression.
The horrifying spectacle of public retribution by organised power is one the West abandoned nearly 300 years ago — well, if we don’t count Ferguson. Both Foucauldians and opponents of capital punishment are agreed that execution simply doesn’t work to deter crime or gain benefit for the forces enacting it. Visibility, said Foucault, is a trap that diminishes power. Concealment of brutality — and, indeed, concealment of the victims of war — functions infinitely better as a means of control than its full disclosure. The veiled threat works better than the naked one.
What is veiled now — and thereby more desirable to those predisposed to fundamentalism — is not only the thuggery of IS but our own admission of Western violence. It is not enough that we hide those bodies whose deaths we have ordered. Now we demand the same delirious courtesy from the thugs of IS as well.
And all this will achieve is more airstrikes and more of a feeling that our way of making and understanding war is good and evolved and proper. Today, we can not only likely farewell the brave James Foley but the possibility of a stomach strong enough to digest our complicity in this shit.
Helen Razer is a writer whose work appears in The Saturday Paper, Daily Review, SBS Online, The Big Issue, and Frankie. She has previously worked as a columnist for The Age and The Australian and as a broadcaster for ABC radio.