Wednesday, 18 November 2015

What's in a name? Or why the BBC should stop referring to the 'so-called' Islamic State

In my last blog, The medium is not the message, I took issue with an argument in Jared Cohen's piece for Foreign Affairs (November/December 2015):

'... governments should consider working with the news media to aggressively publicize arrests that result from covert infiltration of the Islamic State's online network'.

The medium is not the message. In counterinsurgency the message - its design, its credibility and its reception - depends on the language used and the way the language conveys the themes decided by the source. It is possible to argue that before we begin to understand how to defeat modern terrorism, we need to appreciate the importance of discourses, narratives and language in determining how modern terrorism works, how terrorist groups define themselves and are defined by others; and therefore attention to discourses and language  must be central in any strategy designed to confront terrorism. This is particularly crucial when religion and ideology are invoked as justifications for terrorist activity. Success or failure can often depend on the use of a particular word or phrase.      

My response to Cohen was far from ambiguous: 'The day that governments in liberal-democracies work with the news media', I argued, 'is the day the terrorists have won, for it is a clear violation of the objective and independent journalism that should govern how news media work. It is the media's job to scrutinise governments, to hold them to account for their actions, not to "work with them", aggressively or otherwise'.

BBC journalists are routinely violating the very principles they, in other circumstances, justifiably cherish and have defended certainly since the General Strike of 1926, if not since the very foundation of the organisation in 1922. 

A disturbing trend has crept into BBC journalism over the past several months, and that is a predilection for calling the terrorist group the 'so-called Islamic State'. The use of the qualifier 'so-called' is mistaken, counter-productive, and politically very questionable. 

Like it or loathe it, the Islamic State calls itself Islamic State; that's its name. It is proper to question whether this terrorist organisation represents Islam, and we should confer upon Muslim communities across the world the power to decide whether or not IS’s claim to represent their religion is right and justified. Similarly, it is correct to judge whether IS really is a 'state' at all. It certainly does not demonstrate any of the attributes that we normally associate with states, and IS is not recognised by any sovereign state or the United Nations, so its claim to the term is indeed questionable. But these are discussions that should and must occur without journalists announcing in news bulletins their own verdicts.   

The most crucial reason why BBC journalists should refrain from employing the pronoun 'so-called' in their stories about IS is that its use entails a value judgement; and BBC journalists are not in the business of value judgements. 

In June 2015, a cross-Party group of MPs, backed by the Prime Minister, accused the BBC of legitimising IS by using its name in its reporting. The BBC resisted any change: The Director-General, Tony Hall, said that the broadcaster must remain 'impartial'. But the BBC decided that a qualifier was legitimate, and a spokesman said 'We ... use additional descriptions to help make it clear we are referring to the group as they refer to themselves, such as "so-called" Islamic State.'   

According to Webster’s dictionary, the first definition of 'so called' is 'popularly known or called by this term'. But its second meaning is more relevant in this case, namely 'inaccurately or questionably designated as such' which may give the impression that the speaker has formed a judgement about the veracity of the words that follow.  

By using the pronoun 'so-called', the BBC tacitly accepts the government's agenda and can be accused of engaging in anti-IS propaganda on the government’s behalf. The term undermines the credibility of a world-class news organisation, when maintaining the credibility of the BBC is absolutely essential to counter the narratives of terrorist organisations, as well as authoritarian states. It challenges the very operational values of the BBC and thereby the principles of journalism in a democratic society. ‘So-called’ may suggest to its critics that they are right to question the BBC’s independence, while damaging efforts by journalists throughout the authoritarian world to expand the distance between the news media and government.

Yes, the organisation's claim to be an, or even the, Islamic State should be contested and defied at every opportunity. This challenge should form part of the counter-narrative that will form a credible assault against IS's commanding propaganda strength. But BBC news bulletins are not the appropriate location from which to launch this assault. If a pronoun must be used, the BBC may try using 'the group known as the Islamic State,' or 'self-proclaimed/self-styled Islamic State'. These are more reasonable qualifiers that draw attention to doubts about the organisation's claim, highlight very clearly from where the name comes from (the organisation itself), and still challenge its legitimacy to that name without undermining the BBC’s journalistic integrity.   

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The medium is not the message: Digital Counterinsurgency

The November-December 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs includes an article by Jared Cohen titled 'Digital Counterinsurgency: How to Marginalize the Islamic State Online'.

Too many essays that claim to provide a blueprint on how to confront IS online do so through a detailed examination of the technology and a renewed emphasis on policing the internet. Cohen's essay is no different. From 'suspending the specific accounts responsible for setting strategy and giving orders to the rest of its online army' to 'banning users who break the rules and distribute terrorist content', we are asked to consider a range of techniques that might lead to IS being marginalised in cyberspace and force the group to the so-called Dark Web.

The article is flawed in two important respects:

First, it claims that there is a direct correlation between the number of 'foreign recruits' (c.20,000, 'nearly 4,000 of whom hail from Western countries') and IS propaganda: 'Many of these recruits made initial contact with the Islamic State and its ideology via the Internet. Other followers, meanwhile, are inspired by the group's online propaganda to carry our terrorist attacks without traveling to the Middle East'. Cohen continues: 'Every day the group's message reaches millions of people, some of whom become proponents of the Islamic State or even fighters for its cause'. If this was a student essay, I would ask the author: Where is your evidence for such claims? Can you substantiate the idea that 'many' (a far too vague and meaningless word) IS fighters from abroad are seduced by propaganda? How many are the 'some' to which you refer out of the 'millions' the propaganda reaches?

Understanding how propaganda works and, perhaps most importantly in this case, its limitations is the key to analysing its impact; and any serious analyst of of propaganda would answer that it cannot change minds or alter behaviour, but rather latches on to, and exaggerates, existing or latent emotions, beliefs and ideas. There is more to understanding the IS terrorist than the seductive power of propaganda, and most helpful will be understanding the context in which the propaganda is both produced and received.

Second, the article raises, but fails to address in sufficient detail the ethical and legal consequences of its recommendations. Who decides what is a terrorist, and even an IS social media account? Who decides, and by what criteria, which messages are considered 'extremist', inflammatory or dangerous?  Cohen treads on even more dangerous ground when he suggests 'governments should consider working with the news media to aggressively publicize arrests that result from covert infiltration of the Islamic State's online network'. The day that governments in liberal-democracies work with the news media is the day the terrorists have won, for it is a clear violation of the objective and independent professionalism that should govern how news media work. It is the media's job to scrutinise governments, to hold them to account for their actions, not to 'work with them', aggressively or otherwise.

Finally, the article fails to discuss in any meaningful detail not only the message that may help to marginalise IS - on and offline - but also the political action that may help to isolate the terrorists and understand why young Muslims choose to join such terrorist organisations in the first place. Some of the issues we need to consider include:

(a) White middle class men explaining what Islam is and is not; what the Koran says and does not say; and what the Koran means. The condemnation of Islamic terrorism must begin in Islamic communities themselves. This means avoiding mass messaging in favour of community-based dialogue and discussion, and giving Muslim communities the tools to combat radicalisation themselves.

(b) Not listening to the Muslim voice. Governments must do more to engage with Muslim communities, and actually hear what they are saying. What inspires young Muslims to travel to Syria and join ISIS? Is it simply for the thrill? The promise of glory and status? A sense of brotherhood? To punish the west for their crimes against Islam? To escape deprivation at home? Or because they truly believe in an Islamic Caliphate?  Only when we truly understand why IS is able to recruit in such numbers - and there will be many explanations - can western governments begin to tackle the problem. We know some young Muslims are being radicalised: the important question is not how, but Why? This may mean governments having to rethink policy, at home and abroad, because states are judged by the credibility and legitimacy of their actions, not their words.

Focusing on policing social media and dreaming up ever more innovative methods of controlling the internet is one solution, but it is not necessarily the only nor perhaps the best solution. In combating the evil of IS terrorism, governments need to pay far more attention to their own propaganda message, how it is delivered, by whom and to whom; and actively engage in a more intimate way Muslim communities who may hold in their hand both an explanation for, and an answer to, the crisis we face.