Has the age of digital media heralded a new era of extremist propaganda? Is our obsession with being 100 per cent connected at all times making us vulnerable to new displays of terror? Does our incessant internet use encourage radicals to take advantage of our weaknesses?
In mid-August, 2014, the world woke to graphic and distressing images surfacing all over the internet. James Foley, international correspondent, veteran war zone journalist and American citizen, had been brutally decapitated by the fringe radical Islamist organisation, ISIS.
The still image of the tall, bald, white skinned man in an orange prison jump suit, kneeling next to a man shrouded in black brandishing a kitchen-sized knife will be seared into the memory of all who saw it.
Moments later, as many of us who refused to watch the full footage were told, he had been killed – decapitated – by his captors.
The image is intended to distress, to anger, to disturb. The image, and indeed the video, is begging for a reaction.
The question is, how much was our digital world the catalyst for this type of fundamentalist propaganda? No doubt, we've seen videos of hostages before, during the Iraq and Afghan wars. But never has such a graphic and startling image been seen and shared so many times, through Facebook, Twitter and all manner of online publications.
It brought up many questions, not only around journalistic ethics, but also about the motive and modus operandi of ISIS.
Firstly, was it right for many of the world’s largest publications to print the still of Foley in his last moments - when the knife was put to his throat? Was it right for many television news outlets to play his (undoubtedly scripted) renunciation of America, and his last words? Many have argued that it was not.
That that is exactly what the ISIS radicals wanted.
Many news outlets who had decided to air the stills and the footage had said it was their duty as purveyors of the truth to show their audience. But they were criticised at going against the wishes of Foley’s family, who begged the world ‘not to watch’ the video, and especially not to share it.
Not only did watching and sharing the video go against the Foley family’s wishes, but it denied James Foley of his dignity in the last moments of his life. He will be forever remembered for this despicable act, rather than for his bravery in covering the world’s most tortured and conflict-addled regions.
Though ISIS’ motives seem straight forward – to stop the US bombardment of the militant group through threats – national security and terrorism experts believe their motives are far different. These experts believe ISIS means for the USA to be galvanized into full-scale invasion and bombardment of ISIS-held areas in the hopes that more Islamist radicals will head the call to join the Islamic State.
By sharing the video and abhorring millions, and for those millions to call on their government to act, ISIS has used the digital world for their own ends – to promulgate propaganda and recruit more militants.
Have we been played as a society? Have we watched and shared the video millions of times in outrage, only to be giving radical terrorists the exact ends they wished for? Would this type of horror work in previous years – before we were glued to handheld devices connecting us with the horrors of Aleppo, Gaza and Mosul?
The flip side of this coin is that now we are confronted. Now we cannot look away. Whether it is a small Palestinian child calling for his father, three Israeli teens killed at the hands of Hamas, or an American journalist who will never speak to his family again, we can no longer ignore startling reality.
James W. Foley Legacy Fund
The Foley Family intends to form the James W. Foley Legacy Fund, with public contributions to further Jim’s passionate pursuits, particularly in education and journalism. The Fund’s goal will be to bring Jim’s empathy, humanity and courage to these fields.
Contribute here: freejamesfoley.org/
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