It has become an almost weekly ritual. A car driving through a crowd, a knife attack, a bombing and a perpetrator with vague links to a terrorist organisation or their ideology. It’s followed by a statement on social media of a group claiming disputable links to the perpetrator and declaring the attack in the name of an extremist cause.
Within minutes, the news and social media cycle is flooded, and little else seems newsworthy. A flood of shaky cellphone footage is seemingly played on a loop, with live updates on the smallest developments in the story, and ‘experts’ speculating on the motives of the perpetrator and when the next attack will occur.
There is no doubt of the critical obligation of the media to keep the public informed – it is one of the cornerstones of a functioning democracy. But what kind of narrative is the media creating about terrorism and the world we live in? Or about the people we live with?
A new ISS report released on the margins of the UN General Assembly this week, asks whether limits on freedom of expression will prevent terrorism. Written as part of a series for the Community of Democracies, it argues that the spectacles of violence we observe in terror attacks are intentionally crafted by extremists to force themselves into our daily lives – and create fear. Groups such as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) deliberately use graphic violence because they recognise the public’s captivation with violence and extremism, and the media’s indulgence of this fascination.
Terrorism is aimed at the people watching, not the actual victims.
Terrorist attacks are carried out in a deliberately indiscriminate and seemingly random way to establish the illusion of a constant threat that can strike at any time. Sensational media coverage of terrorism exaggerates this threat.
Acts of terror are intended to undermine the public’s view of the state’s ability to keep them safe – terror attacks against civilians are part of a broader strategy of attrition to undermine confidence in security, and to instil fear. This view is, however, broadly false and intentionally crafted through terrorists’ manipulation of the media to portray themselves as stronger and more capable than they in fact are.
Attracting a lot of media attention can raise the profile of terror groups and exaggerate their power. This directly serves the objectives of these groups. When the media provides excessive coverage of these incidents to increase viewership and ratings, the perception and power of a terrorist threat only becomes stronger. And, by doing so, the media effectively allows itself to be used by extremist groups to project power that the terrorists very likely do not possess.
Overexposure to terrorism through the media exaggerates public perceptions of the threat and the state’s inability to address it. This has fostered an environment of fear in which popular demand for government action has led to the shrinking of civil liberties as government powers expand, supposedly in exchange for more security.
Sensationalised and increased reporting by the media inadvertently undermines democracy by assisting terrorist actors in spreading fear, thus creating an environment in which individuals are willing to surrender rights and freedoms, such as that of their own privacy.
The media can also play a significant role in amplifying the securitisation of responses to terrorism. It can shape public opinion in a way that pressures governments into knee-jerk and overly aggressive responses. This pressure, built upon the fears of the public, can lead to ineffectual short-term responses to terrorism, encouraging the unwarranted use of force and the restriction of human rights.
Often these responses are also counterproductively aimed at communities that are regarded as the sources of extremism. This only plays into the hands of extremists. Terrorism not only spreads fear, it also aims at deepening divisions in society – and strengthening grievances that may already exist.
Terrorism is not like other violence. It seeks to provoke fear that is disproportionate to its actual threat. The media should reflect on how they may be contributing to a climate of fear and divisiveness. This should be done with a critical understanding of the intent behind a terrorist act, and media houses should accordingly guard against being manipulated by these groups.
The media can do far more to contextualise terrorist acts in terms of history, and the factors associated with extremist violence. Exaggerating the terrorist threat only benefits extremists and gives them the power to shape the global agenda.
A free media is the basis of a functioning democratic society and it should not allow itself to be co-opted by extremists to perpetuate terror.
Written by Albertus Schoeman, Consultant, ISS Pretoria