Would you be offended if I glorified the members or actions of ISIS? Or if I said the Paris attackers were cunning and tactical? Or if I called Anders Behring Breivik savvy, dominant, resourceful, impressive, or even a mastermind?
Of course, I wouldn’t say those things. Yet this is exactly what many influential people, not to mention the mass media, are doing on a daily basis. It’s not done verbally, but rather photographically and metaphorically. The effect is the same: It leaves people with the impression that Breivik is an influential person, and we should all be very, very afraid of ISIS because they are strong and powerful.
From my 10 years of experience studying the effects of images and media on the brain, especially on an unconscious level, I have come up with a few tips that could dampen terrorist admiration and recruitment.
Too often, immoral if not psychopathic behaviour is glorified instead of vilified in various media. Let’s look at few examples:
This photograph was published by many leading newspapers and online media after the 2011 Norway attacks. It shows attacker Anders Behring Breivik in court. Viewers have differing opinions of this picture, but it clearly projects a self-confident image of this murderer, casting him in a light of glory, particularly in the minds of some young men who seek daring idols and heroic role models. When looking at this photo, some perceive Breivik as a fearless man, true to his will, and strong when the going gets tough. Some might even be inspired by the photo to learn more about Breivik’s philosophy and absorb his propaganda.
This is how terrorist recruitment starts. Ordinary people who are missing something in their lives start to worship an image. If they feel strongly enough about it, they automatically, unconsciously start to justify their admiration. Later this feeling might grow into more intense idolization and then, possibly, imitation. Pictures like the one above of the Norwegian mass murderer not only inspire approbation, they also support the perpetrator’s motives and therefore incite hatred.
It’s more than glorification
But it’s not always about glorification. There are also cases in which we accept the fact that violence and other harmful activities can lead to positive feelings such as pleasure, ecstasy, blissfulness and pride.
The above pictures portray Breivik as a proud man, full of joy and satisfaction right after the horrible massacre he perpetrated. Photos like these, lacking a core message of condemnation, can have peculiar effects on the brain in some people, linking positive feelings with negative social acts. And for some, that can be the first step in creating the belief that bad behaviour can generate pleasant feelings.
Naturally, the majority of people regard photos of Breivik in a negative way, seeing him as a complete psychopath. The number of people who might perceive the above picture as an icon of a hero is indeed small, but no society can afford the cultivation of individuals who wish to emulate Breivik. Therefore, we as a society must be aware of how images like this one might affect impressionable people. Framing subjects in the way that Breivik is framed here can plant a seed in some persons to do harm to others later on. This is why a discussion of society’s tendency to glorify people who threaten our fundamental values and beliefs is necessary.
What needs to be changed?
My suggestion is not to stop giving gangsters and criminals attention in the media. No, on the contrary, we always need to be informed about their acts, behavior, judgment and thoughts. However, we must stop fomenting the adulation of their personality, acts or propaganda. We can look at them as a virus. Their goal is to spread infection, and our job is to do everything possible to prevent that infection.
My suggestion is to inform journalists, photographers and everyone else involved in reporting the news about the effects of oral and photographic language on viewers. The key is to boost awareness of the types of language and photos that stimulate idolization. Perhaps being more aware would inspire them to go the extra mile to select a picture of Breivik, for example, that does not portray him or his criminal activity in a positive light.
Our biggest hurdle: The greed for mouse-clicks
Most agree with the above suggestion to prevent admiration and imitation of those with murderous intentions. It should be easy, then, to get people to join this cause, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. The biggest hurdle is the greed for mouse-clicks. The success of revenue-seeking publishers is measured by the number of clicks on their links. The motivation of framing news stories has become quite different from what it used to be. Now, journalists and reporters are indirectly asked to frame their stories to maximize the number of clicks. To reach that goal, they picture someone who catches the eye, tell a story in a way that astonishes the public, and provoke curiosity and shock. That’s the right strategy to feed the hunger for mouse-clicks.
But the positive framing of criminals is not necessarily the best way to maximize clicks. We don’t need to portray these villains as illustrious to get readers clicking. Here is one example of a piece that did the contrary. It’s about a man who advocates the legalization of rape and by organizing “tribal meetings” for people fantasizing the same. The man frames himself as the “King of Masculinity” in order to kindle esteem, but a clever reporter at The New Zealand Herald does the right thing and frames that desperate attention-seeker as a laughingstock in front of the whole world:
And Daily Mail does it even better:
These two examples demonstrate how news reporters can meet the demand of keeping mouse-clicks on target while at the same time avoiding the encouragement of veneration for despicable behavior. The strategy they used in these two examples is to pick out weaknesses of ‘our enemy’ and to expose them in the flip side of the light they are seeking. They effectively re-framed the rape advocate’s intended brand image from bold to ridiculous. Let’s follow their example and find a fact that makes us laugh at them. Unmask their true personality, and expose their cowardice. Shed a light on their failures and inferiority, and reveal how weak and scared they truly are. This would cause a decline in recruitment for organizations (ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda etc.) that depend on being celebrated for their acts.
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Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who organized the Paris attacks of November 2015, is another example of a criminal who has been glorified by the media. He has been portrayed by established media as clever, whereas it is implied that the police and the intelligence agencies are slow and stupid. Let’s look at some of Abaaoud’s quotes published in The Guardian:
“I was able to leave … despite being chased after by so many intelligence agencies,” he told the magazine. “All this proves that a Muslim should not fear the bloated image of the crusader intelligence.
“My name and picture were all over the news, yet I was able to stay in their homeland, plan operations against them, and leave safely when doing so became necessary. I ask Allah to accept the fruitful deeds of the shuhadā’ [martyrs] who terrorized the crusaders of America, France, Canada, Australia, Germany and Belgium.”
An example of the media’s praise of Abaaoud is their description of him as “the mastermind behind the Paris terror attacks”. Technically, that might be apt, but we have to be aware of the fact that such framing of words creates a positive image of this scumbag. The phrase “Brothers In Arms” was also widely used in reference to Abaaoud and his brother, who participated in the Paris attacks. This is yet another example of heroic status bestowed on small-minded, creepy losers and useless pieces of dirt who don’t deserve it.
Besides being quoted as an inspiration for possible admirers, Abaaoud has been widely pictured as a celebrity, smiling victoriously to the world despite his monstrous intentions. Such an image makes him, and therefore his acts, captivating in the eyes of an impressionable person. The media also consistently displays the ISIS flag at the top of the picture, linking the ISIS brand to the concept of victory and success. Is that something we feel comfortable with?
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The last example is a tweet by CNN which demonstrates quite well how the admiration of ISIS has been normalized:
Please, CNN, can you stop promoting ISIS by advertising their recruitment videos as something that everyone needs to see? I know that some will argue that we need to be informed about everything in relation to ISIS to be able to win the war. But that’s not true. The army, intelligence agencies, and the government must know everything about ISIS to catch them. However, a lay person outside of those agencies does not need access to ISIS recruitment videos, especially if they might spark reverence and normalize ISIS criminal acts.
Instead of casting a heroic image on terrorists, we could consider framing ISIS and its members negatively. The pictures of them that are published should not inspire any kind of approval or admiration. The most effective way to negatively affect ISIS recruitment is to put them in an unfavorable light. “Join ISIS and be a coward,” could be one re-framed slogan for this groups of idiots. “Scared dudes with guns attacking innocent people and children” could be another.