Media and Terrorism

Terrorism studies have evolved from a relatively minor subfield of security studies to a distinct discipline with its own journals, research centres, renowned scholars and specialists, funding options for research, conferences, seminars, and study programmes. It is one of the fastest-growing research fields. The recent increase in terrorism studies can be traced to the fourth wave of terrorism, which includes the rise of Jihadist terrorism over the past several decades. The mass media includes newspapers, radio, and television, as well as other significant means of communication, such as books, films, music, theatre, and the visual arts. As a result of globalisation in the late 20th century, the media industry has become a worldwide industry. The major objectives of terrorism are to instill terror and appeal to a wider audience beyond. A positive correlation might also be found between the increase of terrorism and the information revolution, which led to the spread of televisions and mass media the immediate victim. The media facilitates these two objectives. In turn, the media receives breaking news and profits in a fiercely competitive economy. This generates a symbiotic relationship between the two, which will be discussed further in the subsequent sections of this essay. Social media has experienced exponential growth in recent years. Jihadist outfits have also exploited the proliferation of social media. Terrorist organisations have expanded their presence on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Telegram. The subsequent sections of this paper will examine the symbiotic relationship between terrorism and the media in greater depth, as well as the increase of Jihadist activity on social media platforms and whether or not this has had an impact on the symbiotic relationship.

According to Juergensmeyer, without being observed, terrorism would not exist. The act of killing alone does not constitute a terrorist act; murders and intentional attacks are so common in most communities that they are hardly noticed by the media. Terrorism is characterised by its ability to cause fear. The activities designated as terrorism are premeditated explosions and attacks carried out in locations and at times planned to be observed. Terrorism would be as worthless without its frightened witnesses as a play without its audience.

Propaganda plays a significant role in terrorism, largely to sustain the morale of the existing fighters, as well as to gain public support for their cause and maybe recruit new members. Terrorists rely heavily on their own propaganda agencies. These organs assist them in explaining new policies or strategies implemented by the leadership, so sustaining ideological militancy among members and sympathisers and promoting their views among potentially sympathetic groups. Due to the very restricted circulation, these organs have a negligible effect on the population. 

Terrorist actions have historically centred on the spread of terror to a broader audience, and a means of distributing information is vital for this. The Assassin Sect of Shia Islam, which tried to sow fear among Sunni Muslims in the Middle East, relied on word-of-mouth in mosques and marketplaces to spread information of their attacks. This example demonstrates that such transmission routes may also be informal. Terrorists from Russia and the Balkans adopted similar strategies in the nineteenth century. In recent decades, the channels have become more structured and formal due to revolutionary changes in the mainstream media. The use of mass media by terrorists to promote their cause has been documented on numerous occasions.

Media and terrorism have a highly complex relationship. Terrorist organisations have frequently viewed media organisations, editors, journalists, and broadcasters as adversaries that must be punished and eliminated. This is evidenced by attacks on the media in conflict zones like Italy and Turkey in the 1970s and Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s. Journalists are primarily scrutinised for offending the terrorist movement in some way, and they are also attacked or threatened to prevent them from revealing information about terrorist actions. 

Despite the apparent rejection of the media, some terrorist movements and assaults have been bolstered by the mass media in recent decades. Terrorists rely on media coverage of their attacks to intimidate their adversaries. Ironically, terrorists have sometimes utilised media coverage to intimidate their media opponents into silence, surrender, or passive neutrality. Without media coverage, a terrorist attack is largely ineffective and remains limited to its immediate victim, as opposed to its intended audience. They grab the attention of the masses with the assistance of the media. In addition, they seek to publicise their cause through the media, inform allies and opponents of the motivations behind terrorist acts, and justify their use of violence. In addition, they seek to be considered as regular, acknowledged, genuine world leaders because the media accords them a comparable stature. The media aids terrorists in reducing the power disparity between themselves and their adversary. Therefore, four general objectives terrorists seek to achieve through media are to convey the propaganda of the deed and to create extreme fear among their target groups, to mobilise wider support for their cause among the general population and international opinion by emphasising themes such as the justness of their cause and the inevitability of their victory, to frustrate and disrupt the response of the government and security forces, and to mobilise, incite, and bludgeon the public.

While the motivations of terrorist organisations for their use of the media have been proven, questions may be raised regarding the media’s role in the same. One could argue that the democratic press does not share the ideals of the organisations and would never support their actions. Nonetheless, the solution to the question lies in the interests of the industry. Many executives of media outlets come from the business world rather than the ranks of journalists. Coverage of terrorism, particularly prolonged instances such as hijackings and hostage situations, provides media outlets with an inexhaustible supply of spectacular and visually engaging news items that can increase audience numbers. A focus on breaking news dominates the media, which is driven by the political economics of the media. It is about reporting first, not always reporting accurately. 

In times of crisis, journalists must navigate demanding audiences and challenging reporting environments. Terrorist attacks further complicate their function. Everyone relies on the media for information and updates, and journalists strive to strike a balance between national and public interests. It is easier for state-owned media outlets to follow a single information stream. However, the line is thin for privately held media, and the absence of crisis guidelines for news coverage makes it much more challenging. 

As alluded to in the beginning, terrorists and the mass media share a symbiotic relationship. The term symbiosis refers to mutually dependent relationships between dissimilar groups within a community whose relationships are complementary. There is a clear link between the expansion of mass media and the proliferation of television and the PR potential of terrorism. Despite the fact that terrorism as a tool has frequently failed to achieve remarkable political objectives such as the overthrow of governments and the seizure of political power, it has succeeded in publicising political causes and conveying their threat to a wider audience, particularly in the western nations. This was accomplished substantially with the help of the media. Due to the sentimental value of a terrorist act, the media obtains significant economic rewards in a fiercely competitive market when they respond to it. This generates a symbiotic relationship between the two that is mutually beneficial. 

The 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai are an example of this symbiotic link between the media and terrorists. On November 26, 2008, Mumbai was the scene of a horrifying terror strike in which terrorists at numerous sites carried out a well-planned assault on the city’s residents. For years to come, the media’s handling of the problem in offering logistical assistance to terrorist handlers was severely examined. On 29 August 2012, the Supreme Court of India, in Md. Ajmal Md. Amir Kasab vs. the State of Maharashtra, dedicated an entire section to the conduct of the media and how it endangered operations during the attack. Reporters and cameramen attempted to get as near as possible to the spots. Consequently, some media reported operational information. The media coverage of National Security Guard commandos revealed their battle methods to terrorists. The Indian government stated that intercepted phone calls between terrorists and their handlers revealed the commandos’ movements and operations methods, which informed the terrorists.  

Another example would be the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City. The media’s reaction to the attacks was dripping with anger and outrage. The media coverage following the events altered public attitudes and the manner in which individuals perceive events and “other”. As a result, the media has propagated a fear-based narrative. The terrorists fulfilled their media-related goals because the media transmitted the idea that even the United States was vulnerable to terrorist strikes and that these assaults could cause significant damage. 

The information revolution has not only led to the proliferation of televisions and conventional media, but also of the internet and social media. Terrorist organisations have utilised the potential afforded by the expansion of social media platforms to establish an online presence for jihadist propaganda that is both persistent and ideologically consistent in order to recruit fighters and financial supporters. Internet has effectively overtaken official media channels since it is easier to use, more efficient, and faster. The internet enables organisations to convey their message and imagery directly to the worldwide online community. The internet is the ideal tool for terrorists to achieve their operational objectives with minimal price and risk.

The skillful use of online media platforms enables a combination of audio-visual material interwoven with writings that further explicate particular ideological components of terrorist activities. Extremists have utilised social media to improve their standing in the jihadist community. Prior to 2011, al-Qaida (AQ) had built a “jihadist clout” that allowed it to stay resilient on the Internet despite physical losses. 

ISIS and other jihadist organisations have utilised fluid, scattered networks to distribute their online media output. Individuals choose a loose association as media mujahideen and actively disseminate content in an effort to keep it accessible in spite of constant content removal and account suspension. Since Osama bin Laden’s death, this strategy has evolved among terrorist groups. 

The Media Mujahideen are jihadist organisation sympathisers who spread online jihadist propaganda. They operate through a network of accounts that continually reconfigures, much like a swarm of bees or a flock of birds that reorganises itself mid-flight. This new scattered and durable social media strategy is also known as Swarmcast. 

After Bin Laden’s demise, terrorist organisations prioritised a tighter link between real and digital battlefields. Following the publishing of a few early comments, the “al-Qayrawan” media foundation published “The Media Mujahid- First Steps to Professionalize the Media Jihad” as well as individual tips on how to use social media. The operational strategy of jihadism has grown to include dispersed types of networks, organisation, and strategy.

In the Swarmcast approach, there is no obvious separation between the audience and the content provider in charge of broadcasting content to the public. This distributed network enables Jihadist factions to disseminate near-real-time audiovisual content from the conflict. This also cultivates and deepens group solidarity among the Mujahidin and strikes a receptive chord with the broader populace in an effort to mobilise it. Increased social media usage ultimately led to engagement on platforms like Twitter. Members of forums, blogs, and social media platforms gave practical recommendations to aid people who wished to contribute to the media mujahideen’s efforts and accelerate the adoption of specific social media platforms and digital technology.

Twitter has become the central hub for the active propagation of links directing viewers to digital information held on a variety of websites, social media platforms, and discussion forums inside the complex network of interconnected sites. Outfits or media mujahideens linked with them employ specific hashtags to expand their reach and maintain their affiliation with the cause. Almost 80 percent of the links shared by these organisations on Twitter lead to longer You Tube videos. 

Having demonstrated the significance of social media in terrorist actions, it is also vital to examine how it impacts the symbiotic relationship between mass media and terrorism. 

Social media has proven to be a considerably better alternative than mass media sources for terrorist organisations. Democratic media is subject to censorships, while social media censorships can be circumvented, particularly through the use of swarmcast and media mujahideens. 

The Swarmcast is resistant to account suspensions and takedowns. Jihadist groups have shifted from disseminating content via a small number of official accounts to a distributed network of media mujahideen. The swarmcast is swift because it can convey information to a large network of persons more quickly and efficiently. This tactic’s agility is demonstrated by the capacity to rapidly switch platforms and even adopt new technologies for brief periods of time.  

The aforementioned characteristics demonstrate that social media and swarmcast are superior to mass media for the propagation of terrorist propaganda. Terrorists in conflict zones such as Kashmir use sites such as telegram to issue messages regarding their activities. This drastically decreases their reliance on mainstream media outlets. While the media could potentially benefit from covering terrorist incidents, the transition from mass media to social media is a broader trend that is not exclusive to terrorism. Social media has a negative effect on the symbiotic relationship between the media and terrorism.

The previous sections of this essay have established a symbiotic relationship between the media and terrorism. Further, the essay also looked into how this symbiotic relationship is affected by social media. While mass media and terrorism have had a historically beneficial relationship, their relationship has been complicated. Media has been subject to certain legal and moral obligations while broadcasting terrorist activities, which takes the shape of censorship and articles attacking terrorist activities at times. Social Media proves to be a better alternative for terrorist outfits as it can bypass censorship and disseminate information to larger target audience freely, hence negatively affecting the symbiotic relationship between the two. 

Image Credit: Mstyslav Chernov [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

*Pradeek Krishna is pursuing a bachelor’s in Global Affairs, with a specialisation in Defence and National Security Studies, and Foreign Policy Studies from the Jindal School of International Affairs.

Ethnic Minorities of Bangladesh: A Stunning Success in National Integration

Unlike other countries in the region, Bangladesh has been an example for its integration of minorities. While the CHT region, the mountainous region  that...

Nancy Pelosi’s Visit to Taiwan: Another Round of Tensions

After weeks of speculations, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, arrived in Taipei on Tuesday with her congressional delegation,...

South Korea and Japan Relations: Moving Beyond the Horizon

Under its new president Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea has re-imagined the state's role in today’s changing geopolitical landscape as a global pivotal state. Global...