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Terrorism, Fear, and Social Media

Social media that make communication instantaneous, visual, and personal are being used to promote fear of terrorism and support for war against ISIS. In 2001 it took an attack on the U. S. homeland and the deaths of nearly 3,000 people—along with a strong propaganda campaign– for Americans to overwhelmingly support the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2014 the global broadcast of the brutal killing of 2 American journalists apparently was enough to heighten public support for military action against ISIS, which President Obama officially announced within days of the second brutal snuff video viewed by thousands. How we communicate and get information has changed dramatically during this 13 year period.

According to the Pew Research Internet Project, in 2000, about 46% of Americans had access to the internet, while over 87% did so in 2014. Cell phone usage increased from 53% to 90% during the same period. And smart phone ownership– quite rare in 2000—soared to nearly 60% in 2014. These media provide direct access to audiences, who view and experience the material, out of context and without reflection on what it all means. Despite murdering people in order to achieve a mythical past, ISIS is part of contemporary media culture and understands how the world increasingly operates with media logic. ISIS not only used YouTube to publicize executions, it also sent emails to the slain journalists’ family demanding ransom. A camcorder and videotape captured the grisly beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002; James Foley’s murder was uploaded to YouTube by ISIS propagandists. According to Professor Max Adams (Northeastern University), “It’s important to recognize where Islamic State is coming from historically, in order to understand why it is beheading people — and why it’s using social media to broadcast it.”

These executions were deadly theatrical stunts orchestrated to generate social media action and political reaction. This new communication environment is being used by terrorists, politicians, and even marketers. Notwithstanding the relatively frequent beheadings in the Middle East against enemies, such as rebels fighting pro-Assad forces, U. S. audiences are most familiar with the deaths of Americans. The sudden emotional reaction to imminent danger seems real when we actually see horrific acts on familiar social media that we share with family, friends, and political leaders. Citizens and officials receive information and comments at virtually the same time.

Reactions with little reflection and planning fly off into previous discourses of fear framed by events and issues of the day, including ongoing terrorist threats, immigration, and fragmented foreign policy decisions. Opinion polls suggest that Americans are once again succumbing to fear of terrorism, aided in part by sensational media reports about the growing menace, but also by politicians, who trumpet potential threat in press conferences and off-the-cuff statements that will be carried over social media. Consider recent statements by Misters Cuomo, DeBlasio and Christie about ISIS threats to the U. S. According to Mr. Christie, there is an “undeniable heightening” of terrorist activity, and Mr. Cuomo added “We would be in a state of denial if we did not say, with what’s going on internationally, that the risk of a threat to us has increased.”  Representative Jeff Duncan of South Carolina told fellow Republicans to “wake up,” adding “With a porous southern border, we have no idea who’s in our country.” Then there’s Texas sheriff, Gary Painter’s rant “If they show their ugly head in our area, we’ll send them to hell.”

Our communication order offers great promise, but we must be aware of the risks of reaction without reflection.

David Altheide, PhD, is Emeritus Regents’ Professor on the faculty of Justice and Social Inquiry in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University, where he  taught for 37 years. His most recent book is: Media Edge: Medial Logic and Social Reality (Lang).

David L. Altheide is Regents’ Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University. His most recent book is Terrorism and the Politics of Fear.

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