Social Media and the Islamic State’s Killing of James Foley: Why It Is Time the West Shifts Public Attention towards the Kurdish Internet-Sphere

Social Media and the Islamic State’s Killing of James Foley:
Why It Is Time the West Shifts Public Attenstion towards the Kurdish Internet-Sphere.
Christian Fuchs

A Turkish translation has been published here.












The Islamic State (IS) has spread a video on the Internet that shows how it beheads the American journalist James Foley, who was kidnapped in Syria in 2012. IS has continuously published and diffused images and videos of such killings online and has for this purpose not just used YouTube and Twitter, but also newer platforms such as, an image and text sharing platform that is among the world’s 8,500 most accessed WWW sites.

There is a long history of journalists reporting and visualising the violent realities of war. One of the most famous examples is Robert Capa’s image of a falling Republican soldier, pictured in the moment he was shot in the Spanish Civil War in 1936. The photograph was published in Life magazine on July 12, 1937, with the comment: “Robert Capa’s camera catches a Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head in front of Córdoba“. Another famous example is Nick Ut’s image of Kim Phúc and other children. It shows how they from the Vietnamese village Trang Bang after the South Vietnamese had dropped a napalm bomb on it in June 1972. The mediatisation of war has increasingly brought about a de-realisation of war, in which animations, videos, and images that look like fireworks or show heavy weapons hide the actual killing of humans and present wars in a sanitised manner. CNN and others have done much to turn war into a media spectacle. War reporting is today torn between showing disturbing and sanitised images and the complexity of what to show and what to hide.

James Foley was one of the courageous journalists and photographers who report about the brutal reality of wars without sanitising images. The reason why his killing is so shocking is that IS has turned the media logic around so that it is not journalists showing the horrors of killings, but IS showing how it kills a journalist. In a brutal inversion, the journalism of documenting killing in wars turned into the symbolic war of showing the killing of a journalist. War journalism was inverted into a war against journalism.

The crucial question that arises is how to react to IS’s media strategy. The police has asked to remove killing images uploaded by IS. Twitter has continuously suspended accounts that spread ISIS propaganda. Following the IS’s spread of the “Message to America”-video, Twitter’s CEO Dick Costolo tweeted that his company is “actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery”. YouTube deleted postings of the video.

The events show that wars and conflicts are in the 21st century not just fought with arms that kill people, but are also symbolic, psychological and communication wars fought on the Internet and via the media. Information warfare complements physical warfare.

Whereas some say such suspensions violate freedom of expression, others hold the opinion that such violent images can incite fundamentalists to support IS, can spread fear among the Kurdish fighters who struggle against IS, and can have harmful effects on minors. Such discussions miss however the point.

Attempts to censor IS misunderstand the nature of the Internet: If somebody recalls contaminated chickens or bottles of poisoned beer from supermarkets, then nobody can eat and drink these goods any longer and the harm can be contained. Information on the Internet behaves completely differently: It can be copied and spread easily, quickly, and cheaply all over the world because it is a peculiar good: Information is not used up in consumption and it is difficult to exclude people from its consumption and from copying it. IS puts its barbaric images and videos on multiple platforms using multiple accounts and within a short time thousands of copies float through virtual space. Given the characteristics of information, it is impossible to censor online information, which makes such political ideas infeasible and a tilt at windmills. The censors of this world fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the Internet and are trapped in the right-wing ideological illusion that surveillance and censorship technologies can solve the world’s social and political problems.

















In 2003, Barbara Streisand (pictured above) tried to legally suppress images of her Malibu house that had been posted online. The effect was that thousands of people re-posted the pictures and hundred thousands viewed them. This Streisand effect shows that censorship attempts in the world of media spectacle create more attention for the censored information. The more platforms and politicians try to censor IS, the more the horrifying images and videos will spread.

If the right-wing law-and-order strategies of censoring, controlling, and surveilling are counter-productive, what can and should be done? IS fights a war on multiple fronts. Its most immediate opponents and the only ones who can realistically stop IS are the Kurdish people and the Kurdish military forces, including the PKK that plays a major role, in Northern Iraq. Western media have focused their reports on IS’s barbarism and its use of social media. The large Western media attention given to IS has reinforced its visibility and symbolic power. IS’s Kurdish opponents have received much less Western media presence. So for example although some media, such as Der Spiegel and the Times, briefly reported that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party PKK has rescued many Yazidis from the Sinjar Mountains [watch a video about the role of the PKK and the YPK/YPJ in the Yazidis’ rescue, watch a video about feminist YPJ fighters in Syria]. Most Western media have been silent on this issue.

Western media, including the Guardian and the BBC and many others, hardly report on the fact that Kurds use social media for documenting and reporting on their fight against IS. There are Twitter hash tags such as #TwitterKurds and #KurdsResistISIS that challenge tags such as #ISIS and #A_Message_to_America. There are very active Kurdish bloggers and Twitter-users in Erbil, Dohuk, Kirkuk, Zakho, Sulaymaniyah, and other parts of the world. Examples are @Sazan_Mandalawi, @RuwaydaMustafah, @Hevallo, @kurdishblogger, @KurdistaniNews, @KurdistanJiyane, @readactnow, @masutkosker@momenzellmi, @BayanRahman, @KurdistanRegion, @qubadjt, @Gorran_Change, that challenge IS’s online presence. Kurdish users who employ social media profiles, accounts, blogs, and hash tags fight an information war against the IS’s social media sphere. It is predominantly the latter and not the first that resonates in Western media.

Reporting on IS is for Western media certainly more spectacular than Kurdish bloggers and Twitterers, which reflects the circumstance that the media in capitalism tend to be organised as a massive spectacle that is focusing attention on the wild, the brutal, and the extreme, which it turns into an audience commodity aimed at maximising the number of readers and viewers. The downside of this approach in the case of the on-going conflict in Iraq is that it simultaneously strengthens IS’s symbolic power.

Social media is a stratified public sphere, in which gatekeepers that have millions of followers dominate attention and visibility. The major players and gatekeepers on social media are celebrities and traditional media. Some examples: Twitter’s company account @twitter has more than 31 million followers, The New York Times’ account @nytimes around 13 million, the BBC’s account @BBCBreaking around 11 million, the Guardian’s account @guardian more than 2.5 million, @Channel4News more than 400,000, etc.

Kurdish social media users hardly have more than a few thousand followers. The best support that the Western public can give to the Kurds is to stop focusing its attention so much on IS and its use of social media, to stop unwinnable right-wing attempts to censor and control the Internet, and to start amplifying the voices and visibility of the Kurdish social media sphere by reporting about how Kurds and their supporters use the Internet for political purposes, and by re-tweeting and re-posting their contributions.

The Internet’s economy is not just an information economy, but also an attention economy. Wars and conflicts are about the control of territory. They are wars about the control of physical and information spaces. Focusing Western attention predominantly on one side is not just one-dimensional, but also a reinforcement and amplification of this side’s communication power. It is time for qualitatively different communication strategies, media reports and politics of information.

Christian Fuchs is editor of the journal tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique and author of books such as “OccupyMedia! The Occupy Movement and Social Media in Crisis Captialism” and “Social Media: A Critical Introduction” . Twitter: @fuchschristian

Image sources:
Kurdish flag: By Khoyboun [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Barbara Streisand: By Allan Warren (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Closed gates: John Firth [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Update of this posting, August 26, 2014:
Western Media Start Reporting on the Role of the PKK/YPJ/YPG in Iraq – And Again Marginalise Attention

On August 25, the BBC published the article “Analysis: Could support for the ‘other’ Kurds stall Islamic State?” that briefly describes the role of the PKK and YPG in the liberation of Mount Sinja and the fight against IS. The article does not mention the YPJ. Furthermore on the BBC News website’s Middle East section’s Iraq part, the article was only listed as the fourth of five articles, the main featured article being “US sanctions Syria air surveillance”. On the main page of BBC News’ World section, the article was not listed at all. BBC 1′s 6 o’clock evening news on August 26, the day after the just mentioned article was published, did not report on the topic.

On August 26, the Guardian’s paper edition featured the article “Islamic State: Kurds face latest enemy in war that exposes their own fragility” on page 14 (the online version’s title is even more tabloid-like – “Islamic State savagery exposes limits to Kurdish authority”). The article mentions in just one short paragraph that the YPG and PKK liberated the Yazidis from Mount Sinja. It says that “[f]emale Kurdish fighters were among the group”, but does not bother mentioning the YPJ. The main cover story focused on the question if support for IS in the UK should be prohibited by terror laws. The comments section featured a piece by John Gray about the “Islamic State’s modern barbarism”. The letters page had a special section on “How to deal with Britain’s jihadis”.

Der Spiegel’s print edition no. 34/2014 (August 18) published the German version of an article (pages 77-79) that describes how the PKK created a corridor for helping Yazedis escape from Mount Sinja. The piece neither mentions the YPJ nor the YPG. Furthermore much more attention was given to the 5-page long cover story “Das Kalifat des Schrecken” (“The Caliphate of Horror”) that focused on IS’s fascist practices, including a very graphic cover image titled “Der Staat des Bösen: Wie die IS-Terroristen ihr Kalifat errichten” (The State of Evil: How the IS-Terrorists Build their Capliphate”).

These examples are indications several things:

a) The first mentioning of the PKK/YPJ/YPG’s role in the resistance against IS and their liberation of the Yazidis came very late in Western mainstream media. The first stories on the Yazidis on Mount Sinja emerged around August 6th/7th in Western media, which means that it took 10-20 days until many of them for the first time mentioned the PKK/YPJ/YPG’s role. Reality was thereby distorted in such a way that the impression was created in the public that when the US finally arrived on Mount Sinja, there were not many Yazedis there. Neither the US nor Western media mentioned or only mentioned very late that the PKK/YPJ/YPG’s has played a major role in both the liberation of the Yazedis from Mount Sinja and the struggle against IS. Actual reports did not devote much space and time to discussing this role or featuring interviews.

b) Even when Western media mention the role of the PKK/YPJ/YPG in the struggle against IS or devote stories to this issue, the topic gets much less space, time, words, images, visibility, and attention than stories about IS’s fascism. IS’s violence can be much better marketed and sold as spectacle in Western media than the democratic-communist and feminist worldview of the PKK/YPJ/YPG.

c) Western mainstream media first and foremost report based on a yellow press logic that focuses on creating spectacles that attract audiences. The logic of ratings drives media reputation, advertising, and profits (in the case of the BBC advertising of course plays no role, but still tabloid-like reporting on Iraq has prevailed, just like in the case of the Guardian and other Western media). Such reporting distorts and marginalises aspects that are more complex to report and analyse and that have less spectacular content.

d) The United States tried to not at all mention the PKK/YPJ/YPG’s role in the fight against IS because it probably feared that this may give too much publicity to these groups’ political aims. One should also bear in mind that the US does not want to anger its NATO ally Turkey that is at the moment ruled by a far-right President and government. Paradoxically there have been reports that Erdogan and the AKP have funded IS. The PKK is because of Turkey’s influence still considered as a terrorist group in Europe and the USA. It has not just had a positive role in the struggles against IS-fascism and liberated the Yazidis from Mount Sinja, but has also entered a peace and negotiation process with the Turkish government in 2012.

From Jörg Haider in the 1990s to Nigel Farage and the Islamic State today: Liberal Western mainstream media have since decades deceived themselves by the ideology that heavy reporting on right wing extremism deconstructs it. They have not realised or are deliberately tolerating that the production of the extreme right is not just caused by ideology and political economy, but is also a mainstream media construction. The mainstream media-”deconstruction” of right-wing extremism is part of its construction. This is what the society of the spectacle is like. This is what capitalism is like.

Further reading: Islamic state, Kurdish (in)dependence, Western hypocrisy, and the failure of the nation-state paradigm.

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One Response to “Social Media and the Islamic State’s Killing of James Foley: Why It Is Time the West Shifts Public Attention towards the Kurdish Internet-Sphere”

  • Comment from gorkypaccaci

    As far as I know, Erdogan’s government supported a group called El-Nusra against Assad, by giving them arms, supplies and providing them with a safe base on the Turkish side of the border. El-Nusra, as far as I know, joined ISIS soon after. The problem was that Erdogan’s government lacks the strategic skills to manipulate these groups, like, let’s say, the U.S. does, so now it looks like they are now trying to support various Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq to fight ISIS. I hope Kurds do a good job at this, and I think Turkey should support them to fight ISIS. But as far as terrorist organisations go, it seems rather easy to repeat the same mistake Erdogan did. PKK is just another brutally violent group, and it’d be a mistake to support these groups and help them sugar-coat their image, even though they may actually help the immediate problem at hand. Much like ISIS, PKK was killing civilians in big cities of Turkey by random bombings until recently. Even today, it’s in the news that 3 Chinese engineers who are working on construction of a power plant in South-East Turkey (Kurdish region) have been kidnapped by PKK. God knows why.