The Psychology Behind ISIL’s Media Usage


Posted: June 12, 2016 | By: Matthew Grizzard, Ph.D.


The 21st century brought with it a democratization of media production and distribution. The ability to capture events on video and distribute them to mass audiences was once limited by news reporters’ proximity to events, as well as access to professional video production and distribution equipment. Today, the ubiquity of high quality cameras in the form of cell phones and the ease of video production and distribution through personal computers and the internet allows visual documentation of events to diffuse across the globe nearly instantaneously.

Terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, utilize these technologies to create and disseminate propaganda videos documenting the groups’ various atrocities and crimes against humanity in an effort to increase their status as an Islamic extremist organization, to intimidate potential adversaries and to terrorize populations. Although the extreme violence present in these videos may be useful for spreading fear and terror, leadership within ISIL has expressed concern that such violent content might alienate potential sympathizers [1]. For example, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIL, commanded the group’s media wing to cease using gruesome imagery in its videos because such images may be offensive to Muslims and children. [1]

Theory and evidence from media effects and psychological research may explain why inclusion of such graphic violence could decrease support for ISIL and increase support for U.S. military interventions targeting the group. At the same time, current standards regarding the display of such violent content in news media may be inhibiting these proposed effects. This paper describes these processes, and points to psychological and communication research that may serve as a building block for leveraging violence-exalting propaganda videos against the groups producing them.

Limitations of Human Cognition and the Power of Visual Information

Humans are notoriously bad at abstract thinking. Judgments and evaluations are easily biased by perceptions and reliance on heuristic decision-making [2]. Such biasing can be revealed by simple thought experiments. For example, consider thefollowing:

A baseball bat and a ball cost $1.10 total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

The correct answer is that the ball costs $.05, with the bat costing $1.05. However, many intelligent people, including 50 percent of Princeton and 56 percent of University of Michigan undergraduates [2], respond incorrectly to this question with the intuitive, but wrong, “the ball costs $.10.”

This type of question, along with a host of research in psychology, economics and computer science (see for example the work of John Bargh, Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman, Gerd Gigerenzer and Herbert Simon), has focused social psychologists and cognitive scientists’ attention on the potential that human cognition, including judgments and decision-making, is the result of two cognitive systems interacting with each other. These are a faster, less effortful intuitive system based on perceptual cues (System 1) and a slower, more effortful deliberative system based on applying rules and logic (System 2). [3,4,2]

System 1, the intuitive system, is thought to be primary to System 2 and operating continuously. This means that individuals process incoming information through System 1 first, and if System 1 provides an answer that makes sense perceptually, the individual is unlikely to engage System 2 to further process the information.

With regard to the bat-and-ball problem, the intuitive System 1 drives individuals toward the $.10 response, because it feels right (i.e., it is about the right amount and it results in the remainder equaling $1.00) and because this intuitive response occurs nearly instantaneously without conscious awareness or effort. The individual thus did not have to engage careful decision rules or the effort associated with these rules.

System 2 would involve algebraic logic (i.e., Bat + Ball = $1.10, where Bat = Ball +$1.00), and although this type of logic maybe the most correct way to determine the answer, unless the individual has some reason to believe that the “gut” response is wrong, System 2 is unlikely to be engaged [5].

Within this dual-process perspective, emotional responses would be considered a byproduct of System 1; and when such emotional responses occur, they can again bias individuals’ judgments against rational answers just as the intuitive response in the bat-and-ball problem biased individuals against the correct answer.

In fact, certain statistically unsupported perceptions are thought to be the result of such emotional biasing (e.g., the fear of being the victim of a terrorist attack outweighing the fear of being the victim of a car accident).

Findings regarding the manner in which emotional responses can suppress rational thought [6] have led to important breakthroughs with regard to media effects research and the conceptualization of exemplification theory [7].  Exemplification theory makes several key predictions that are useful when considering emotion-inducing media content, such as that found in the propaganda videos of ISIL.

First, the theory proposes that concrete events are superior to abstract events in terms of comprehension and memory. For example, a case study is easier to understand than an abstract account using statistics, although the statistical description is likely to be more complete and more accurate. Second, the theory proposes that iconic stimuli (such as pictures and video) are superior to symbolic stimuli (such as written descriptions) in terms of the effects they elicit. For example, a video of the aftermath of a suicide bombing is likely to elicit more anger and disgust than a text description. Finally, the emotional nature of stimuli is thought to magnify psychological responses such that a highly emotional stimulus will be superior to a lowly emotional stimulus [7].

These propositions explain why warnings on cigarette packs are more effective if they include graphic imagery of the effects of smoking rather than simple text [8] and the reason why the Food and Drug Administration sought to include such images on cigarette packs sold in the United States [9] (see Figure 1 for a visual depiction of such labels).

Figure 1. Depictions of various

Figure 1. Depictions of various warning labels on cigarette packs. (Image courtesy of the
Food and Drug Administration/Released)

These findings also support ISIL’s decision to include extremely graphic images in their propaganda videos. Visual evidence of the extreme acts of violence they commit is likely to elicit high levels of fear and perceptions of ISIL as a dangerous and powerful organization. Thus, ISIL’s videos are likely very effective at eliciting the intended intimidation responses. However, there are reasons to believe such videos could backfire on the group, particularly in the form of consolidating and intensifying negative attitudes toward the group. Such videos are likely to elicit other condemning emotions, such as contempt, anger and disgust [10,11].  There is some evidence suggesting that this might indeed be happening.

Research by Pew indicates ISIL is disliked by substantial majorities in countries with large Muslim populations [12].  Moreover, this negative sentiment appears more widespread and consistent than dislike for other Muslim-extremist groups [13].  There is also some temporal evidence that extreme terroristic tactics can be the cause of such negative views. Pew Research Center data from Jordan indicated sharp drops in “confidence for Osama bin Laden” and the view that “suicide bombings were often/sometimes justified” among Jordanians following the 2005 Amman bombings [14] . Prior to the Amman bombings, Jordanians may have been able to view the tactics utilized by al Qaeda and bin Laden from a psychologically safe distance. Jordanians were obviously aware of the negative outcomes related to such attacks (e.g., civilian casualties), but as the old adage goes: seeing is believing.

The 2005 Amman bombings brought the violence committed by al Qaeda much closer psychologically to Jordanians. As such, there were enormous shifts in public sentiment related to these attacks. Prior to the bombings 61 percent of the population had confidence in bin Laden and 57 percent viewed suicide bombings as often or sometimes justified. After the bombing, these dropped to 24 percent and 29 percent, respectively. [14]

Although attacks on a nation or its allies may reduce psychological distance and galvanize the public against the perpetrators of the attack, media images maybe an effective means for achieving these goals absent horrific, local outcomes. Moreover, media images may be able to cross geographical distance and bring the reality of such terroristic acts into the purview of populaces that rarely experience them firsthand. At the same time, current standards regarding journalism in the United States may be thwarting these objectives.

Journalism Standards Regarding Displays of Graphic Violence and Their Consequences

The Society of Professional Journalists is the largest professional organization for journalists in the United States. One of its missions is “to stimulate high standards and ethical behavior in the practice of journalism [15].”  To this end, the SPJ adopted the SPJ Code of Ethics and commissioned several white papers to describe standards that journalists should adhere to regarding various ethical dilemmas, including guidelines for transparency, the protection of sources and displays of violence [15]. Particularly relevant to the current discussion regarding violence is a position paper written by the SPJ Ethics Committee on victims of tragedy or violence [16].  The article suggests that reporters and journalists “show good taste” and “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.” The committee also cautioned reporters about avoiding sensationalism in photos:

Journalists also should recognize that news of grief and tragedy circulates quickly. The news will draw attention no matter the presentation. In other words, media will receive higher marks if they present the stories in responsible fashion without resorting to sensationalism in words or photos [16].

Thus, current SPJ standards explicitly tell reporters to avoid displaying graphic images. Moreover, the assumption that tragic news “will draw attention no matter the presentation” ignores much social scientific evidence that news with graphic displays draw more attention and elicit stronger responses than news lacking these displays [7].

The SPJ likely made these suggestions in good faith. After all, common wisdom says violence, and especially graphic violence, are bad things. Broadcasting such images could upset viewers and cause discomfort. Moreover, it is a widely held belief that responsible journalists are not sensationalists. However, psychology has shown repeatedly that common wisdom is not always so wise, and that adhering to the standards of good taste can result in highly problematic effects. In fact, there is some notable disagreement even among journalists regarding how these standards of good taste govern reporting. These disagreements flared following the on-air killing of two reporters in Virginia.

On Aug. 26, 2015, Vester Lee Flanagan II, a former employee of WDBJ in Roanoke,Virginia, shot and killed two of his former co-workers during a live TV news report. He filmed the attack on a cell phone and posted the video to Twitter before committing suicide. The next day, the front page of New York’s The Daily News featured images of the moment Flanagan shot and killed Alison Parker under the headline “Executed on Live TV.”

The decision to feature such graphic images on the front page of a newspaper set off a firestorm of debate, with some arguing that The Daily News was sensationalist and cashing in on tragedy [17]. However, The Daily News defended its decision by stating that the images were “a definitive part of the story, however distributing and horrific” and that their publication might give the issue of gun violence more visibility “at a time when it is so easy for the public to become inured to such senseless violence[17].” This sentiment was echoed by David Rhodes (president of CBS News), who also broadcast some of the video; he defended his decision stating:

I think we are harder in our approach, and that’s why we showed what we did. The softer approach is to take additional steps to protect the audience from some of this material. I’m not sure that’s helping their understanding of what happened [17].

Thus, there is some sentiment even within journalism organizations themselves that more graphic displays of such events might decrease the apathy of the public. However, the current standards of sanitizing violent acts within media, such as censoring graphically violent images, is likely to minimize anger from the public, especially when the violence is committed in areas that are geographically and psychological distanced from the United States. This minimization can lead to a lack of awareness of and attention to events when they are beginning—the time when interventions would be most effective.

A Stitch in Time

A lack of public support for military and humanitarian actions can doom operations [18]. Dwindling support among the population can trickle up into policy decisions of publicly elected officials as U.S. representatives and senators become sensitive to their constituents’ opinions during election cycles [19].

Although dissent introduced into the political process is unlikely to sway the course of action proposed by unelected advisors, this type of dissent can decrease the chances of success of operations. Elected officials may choose to play it safe and move toward the opinion of their constituents, thus reducing support in Congress for funding of such operations or altering the objectives that receive public commitment from political officials (e.g., offensive strategies move toward defensive strategies).

In addition, past research has indicated that these decreases are less tied to the success or failure of operations, and more so with the framing of conflicts. Some researchers have even argued that moral frames for military operations (e.g., “military actions are a necessary response to a moral violation by the enemy”) can overcome substantial strategic losses [18].

There are times when the American public fully supports military and humanitarian intervention, especially times when the United States or its allies have been attacked (e.g., following the attacks of Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11, 2001 [Figure 2]) or, as previously alluded to, when the intervention seems a moral necessity (e.g., the invasion of Iraq). Other times, the American public is either not in favor of intervening or unaware that intervention might be necessary (e.g., the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides). In addition to differences in framing, the lack of awareness may be attributable to lack of news coverage of events or rather incomplete coverage of the atrocities occurring during such events (e.g., sanitization of violence).

Figure 2. New York City the afternoon of Sept.

Figure 2. New York City the afternoon of Sept.
11, 2001. (Photo by Master Sgt. Mark Olsen,
177th Fighter Wing — NJ Air National Guard/

Although many news networks reported on ISIL’s mass executions, such as the Camp Speicher massacre in Tikrit, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people, news reports in the United States typically sanitized images of such attacks. In fact, Scott Pelley of CBS Evening News reported on the Camp Speicher Massacre and described it as an ongoing genocide displaying some images from ISIL’s own videos of the massacre in his report. The images displayed were censored by using a freeze frame[20].  Rather than seeing the victims of the executions being shot and killed, the image freezes before the killing takes place.

Based on the previously discussed psychological literature, this article argues that such censorship can decrease the amount of anger and disgust elicited by such clips, which can consequently decrease willingness to support intervention. This logic was tested in an experimental study and presented the results recently at an academic conference. [21]

The study manipulated a CBS News clipcovering the Camp Speicher Massacre to create three levels of graphicness [20]. CBS’s clip served as the control version. The clip was edited to create a more sanitized version, by removing all images of the executions themselves, replacing such images with video footage of the victims being carted off to the execution site in the back of cattle trucks.

Another edited clip created a more graphic version, replacing CBS’s freeze frame with the unaltered video footage from ISIL’s video released online. Importantly, all elements of the final product were identical in audio elements. Thus, the informational value of the clips was identical and the only alteration occurred in the visual elements of the clip.

Results from the study showed high levels of anger and disgust were elicited by all three versions of the clip. However, the highly graphic version of the clip led to the highest levels of anger and disgust and these responses were polarized. That is, 53.3 percent of the participants who watched the highly graphic version were within one point of the maximum score on our anger-disgust index, compared with 35.9 percent in the unedited clips and only 27.3 percent in the highly sanitized clip.

Thus, this study seems to suggest that highly graphic violence causes viewers to think alike, galvanizing support. The study also examined whether anger and disgust affected support for U.S. military intervention targeting ISIL and more support for humanitarian intervention to support ISIL’s victims. Results suggested that higher levels of anger and disgust led to greater willingness to support military and humanitarian intervention. Moreover those effects linked to the video clips through statistical path analysis.

Today, ISIL is a key concern for the U.S. public (Figure 3), and increases in concern about the group have occurred since the Paris attacks [22]. However, the level of concern seen now among the public may have been possible earlier and prior to the Paris attacks had the news media presented rawer, more graphic images of ISIL’s terroristic tactics to the general population. These types of images might have galvanized the public against the group leading to increased willingness among politicians to support more robust interventions against the group earlier in their rise to power.

Figure 3. Junaid Hussein, under the

Figure 3. Junaid Hussein, under the screen name of CyberCaliphate, claimed responsibility for defacing the U.S. Central Command’s Twitter account in January 2015. (Image
courtesy of Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center/Released)

Concluding Thoughts

Current journalism standards regarding displays of graphic violence suggest that news outlets should sanitize and censor these types of images in order to protect public sensitivities. There is reason to believe, however, that such sanitization can foster apathy and indifference to international crises by failing to elicit strong emotional responses to such events. Because crises unfold over time and a lack of intervention early in the timeline of such crises can exacerbate their effects, earlier interventions into such crises may prevent escalation.

In this manner, news media might serve a functional role for increasing public support of interventions by incorporating highly graphic images in their content. Similar methods might further be used by the militaryand non-governmental organizations when it comes to recruiting local populations to rally against local extremists. Displaying the cruelty and brutality of local militias—especially if it is contrasted with humanitarian efforts by non-governmental organizations or U.S. military interventions—might help to reduce sympathies for those groups and decrease antipathy toward Western aid.

At the same time, it is possible that such graphic images could exaggerate threats posed by such groups. After all, emotional responses lead to illogical fears and poor rational decision-making [23],  as discussed earlier. Thus, focusing on the graphic outcomes of terrorist groups can elevate concerns among the public above and beyond what might be warranted. President Barack Obama argued something similar during his 2016 State of theUnion Address, where he downplayed the threat of ISIL:

As we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages—they pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. That is the story ISIL wants to tell [24].

The fact of the matter is that far more research must be done in this area. The standards of professional journalists are based on good taste and common sense rather than social scientific evidence. Moreover, understandings of the effects of graphic violence on emotional responses, and the motivating effects of those emotional responses on behaviors and attitudes are incomplete. Although it may appear obvious how these types of images work on psychological processes, great advances can be made by testing such obvious explanations to determine where and why they might be wrong.



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Matthew Grizzard (Ph.D., Michigan State University) is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, where he conducts social scientific research on the psychological effects of media entertainment and news media. Specifically, his research suggests that media are particularly adept at eliciting moral emotions (such as, guilt, anger, and moral disgust), which in turn influence moral judgment processes. His work has appeared in communication and psychology journals, including Journal of Communication and Media Psychology. In addition to his research, Dr. Grizzard teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in media effects and graduate courses in research methods.

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