Literature offers no single embracing definition of terrorism. However, scholars agree that terrorism is the use of violence against civilians with the intention of advancing fear and forcing certain beliefs upon others (Fahmy, 2017). Terrorism and the fight against it are major elements in domestic and international politics. As Marthoz (2017) notes, the media is often in the front position, especially when attacks target civilians. Citizens expect the media to inform them without going overboard or resorting to sensationalism. On the other hand, the authorities call for restraint in media coverage for the integrity of operations or calming the population. The relationship between terrorism and the media is well researched and it is clear that the role of the media can take two different and opposed forms. One way, the media takes an active role and is responsible for increased terrorist activities or it stays independent and even contributes to the alleviation of terrorism. Additionally, the use of social media has increasingly become popular and its relationship with terrorism become a concerning issue across the world. Evidence indicates that terrorist groups use social media to communicate with each other, communicate with their followers, and even publish missions and activities (Hossain, 2018). Consistently, we analyze the role of media and social media in supporting the terrorist mission and seek to answer the question: does continual reporting result in instilling fear among the public, while allowing the terrorist message to live on.
The Role of media in Supporting the Terrorism Mission
Mass communications technologies can be used as weapons of war in conventional or asymmetrical conflicts. Adversaries in terrorist environments attempt to shape the character of the environment by manipulating the media. In particular, the media serves several useful purposes for the terrorist organizations and the government when it comes to terrorism (Martin, 2014). For instance, for the terrorists, the media disseminates information, delivers the message to supporters and adversaries, and (the media) takes a front position in the war to influence the public and government policies. For the government, the media can be used to suppress the terrorist propaganda and manipulate the opinions of the society.
Terrorists and their supporters use multiple techniques to attract the attention of the media. In the traditional mainstream media, terrorists often invite the media for press conferences, issue press releases, written statements, audio and video recordings, and sometimes grant interviews to inform the public or the government about their mission. Terrorists take advantage of the Medias’ attempt to compete in preempting the newsworthiness of their competitors, and be the first to report the breaking news, and manipulate them to advance their mission. Along with that, critics argue that the media sometimes cross the line between reporting and disseminating propaganda. The media also shift from objectivity to sensational reporting, especially during intense incidents. Unfortunately, terrorists take advantage of these problems in news reporting and successfully manipulate the media in advancing their mission statements.
Information is power and the media as a weapon provides an important concept in terrorism. Usually, as Martin elaborates, symbolism is at the center of most terrorist activities and the media is a potential supplement to their arsenal. When terrorist groups successfully manipulate the media, even if its mission fails, the intensive exposure leads to propaganda victory.
The Role of Social Media in Supporting the Terrorism Mission
Away from the physical terrorist world, terrorist organizations have shifted to the virtual world playing in the cyber area to spread their ideology through technology. The use of social media platforms has increased significantly and become an important tool for communicating, recruiting, and trading with followers and members of the terrorist organizations. Ideally, social media comprises of a group of an internet or cyber-based applications that allow the creation of content by individual users (Fahmy, 2017). Some examples of social media platforms include Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, and Instagram among others.
Over the last decade, the use of social media has become increasingly popular among individuals. Evidence indicates that terrorist groups are now using social media to advance their mission statements, communicate with their members and followers, and even recruit members into the terror groups (Fahmy, 2017). Terror groups such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Jabhat al Nusra now publish their missions and activities in the name of Jihad on social media, which is a frightening trend. However, the ultimate question remains, why do terrorists prefer social media and how does it support the terrorism mission.
Social media has become one of the most preferred forms of communication for individuals who want to express their views or share information. Besides, as Fahmy (2017) notes, the platform provides users with a range of privacy issues such as private conversation or secret groups, where people can easily share their views and hold discussions without exposing it to the outside world. Social media platforms are also user-friendly making it easy to distribute information and resources among extremist groups and even offer training manuals and operational information. According to information posted on the FBI website, the internet and the use of social media have largely contributed to the evolution of terrorism and terror groups (“What we investigate,” n.d). In particular, the international and domestic terror groups have developed an extensive presence on the internet enabled by the social media platforms that facilitate the ability to radicalize and recruit individuals who receive the extremist messages. For instance, as highlighted by the FBI report, social media has allowed terrorists virtual access to individuals living in the U.S. in an effort to advance homeland attacks. Terror groups and specifically ISIS encourages sympathizers through social media to carry out simple attacks against soft targets. Social media has also been used to encourage radicals to travel to Iraq and Syria to join ranks of the terror groups as foreign fighters.
Impact of Continual Reporting in Supporting the Terrorism Mission
Terrorist organizations receive extensive media attention. It is also clear that terror groups need the extensive media coverage to advance their mission statement, fear, and even recruit followers. What is not clear is whether media attention instills fear among the public, while encouraging the terrorist message to live on. Virtually, when a terrorist attack is reported on the news, what follows are statements that reflect fear and anxiety about visiting the particular area that was attacked (Jenkins, Willis, & Han, 2016). When attacks happen in the United States and Europe, they generate more fear among civilians, prompting a swift response from authorities. However, in other parts of the world such as the developing and third world countries, when terrorist attacks happen, officials issue travel advisories and security warnings reminding people to exercise vigilance. The two situations reflect prudence, but also suggest that there is a reason to be afraid of further attacks. Inherent in these reactions is the assumption that a major terrorist attack increases the likelihood of another attack following or at least occurring soon. Theoretically, as Jenkins et al. pointed, an attack may be the beginning of a terrorist campaign, but hard to prove unless further attacks follow. An article published by Doward (2015) explains media reporting triggers further attacks. Doward also asserts that there a clear link between the number of articles devoted to initial terrorist attacks and the follow-up attacks. On the other hand, Jenkins et al. also noted that heightened media coverage triggers fear among civilians, prompting authorities to heighten security and possibly prevent further attacks. Unfortunately, as earlier highlighted, terror groups rely on the media not only to spread fear but also to spread their message, and recruit followers among other activities. In our analysis, where an attack does not follow, the media coverage manages to spread fear among the civilians and lets the terrorist message live on.
The media plays a critical and significant role in covering and reporting international and domestic terrorist attacks. The terror groups rely on both the traditional mainstream media and social media to advance their mission statements, instill fear, and recruit followers. Questions have been raised on the influence of the media in supporting the terrorism mission with studies indicating that the media plays a positive role in advancing the mission of the terror groups albeit indirectly. It is also evident that continual reporting results in secondary effects of instilling fear within the civilians while allowing the terrorist message to live on. Clearly, sensationalizing terrorist attacks have contributed to increased terror attacks and where the terror attacks do not follow, the groups succeed in spreading their message.
“What we investigate.” (n.d). Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved from: https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/terrorism
Doward, J. (2015). Media coverage of terrorism ‘leads to further violence’. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/aug/01/media-coverage-terrorism-further-violence
Fahmy, S. S. (2017). Media, Terrorism, and Society: Perspectives and Trends in the Digital Age. Mass Communication and Society, 20(6), 735-739.
Hossain, M.S. (2018). Social Media and Terrorism: Threats and Challenges to the Modern Era. South Asian Survey, 22(2), 136-155.
Jenkins, B. M., Willis, H. H., & Han, B. (2016). Do Significant Terrorist Attacks Increase the Risk of Further Attacks?: Initial observations from a statistical analysis of terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe from 1970 to 2013. RAND Corporation. Retrieved from: https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/perspectives/PE100/PE173/RAND_PE173.pdf
Marthoz, J. P. (2017). Terrorism and the Media. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Retrieved from: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002470/247074E.pdfMartin, G. (2014). Essentials of Terrorism: Concepts and controversies. California: Thousand Oaks; SAGE Publications, Inc.
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