Communications: Dr. Brigitte Nacos
"On The Line" Podcast Series, Episode 3, Dr. Brigitte Nacos
Nancy: Today we have Brigitte Nacos on the line. Brigitte is an accomplished journalist, author and academic. She is here to talk to us about the Daesh propaganda machine, why media coverage of terrorism matters, and how to counter the ideological threat posed by Daesh.
Thanks for coming on the show Brigitte. Start things off, could you tell me when and how your interest in terrorism and the media began?
Brigitte: A long time ago, I was a journalist in Germany and I knew a great deal of what happened starting in the late 60s and going into the late 80s with the Red Army faction and similar groups in Europe and I was always pretty much aware of how central media coverage was and certainly still is for terrorists. In fact, the Baeder Meinhof gang is a good example. Meinhof was a journalist so she knew very well how the media system worked. They would for example strike preferably later in the week because they knew the weekend editions had a lot of advertising and the news hole was very big. But that was basically only observing it. Eventually I wanted to see whether that was a systematic thing and so I began a project systematically content analysing the media coverage of terrorism so that you can document how it is. And after 9/11, well, you cannot just look at media separately. You have to understand a lot of other things about terrorists and terrorism, so I began to study more and more about terrorism and counter-terrorism in general. And after 9/11, I no longer practiced the bench-league journalism, but I devoted most of my time, not all of my time, to research in this area.
Nancy: Over this period of time, how have you seen the major developments since going back to the time of the Red Army and then 9/11 and now with Daesh, how has the manipulation by terrorist organisations of the media changed in the way they get their message across?
Brigitte: Well, I’m right now working on kind of documenting the history of terrorism and communications and I will have to say that terrorists at all times were very aware and pretty capable of exploiting communications. What has changed over time, and particularly in the last decade plus, is that the communication technology has dramatically changed. Each step of change throughout modern history, the modern history of terrorism which starts with the anarchists of the second half of the 19th Century, the terrorists were always amongst the first to embrace new communication technologies. Of course, what we have in the wake of social media that is without precedence, that terrorists now have so many means to, not only bring their own messages across, but also attract the greatest mainstream media coverage.
Nancy: So, in that sense would it be too early to say that there has been a shift in media reporting, or in social media, after the Christchurch attack specifically?
Brigitte: You know that’s a very good question. I got this morning an email from a journalist in New Zealand whom don’t know, and he told me that there is tomorrow a hearing in the case of the Christchurch incident. And you know he asked me what I think how that should be covered. That has never happened before. I think the New Zealand case could become a model how media ought to cover terrorist incidents. Look, I told you before, I spent a lot of time in journalism. Of course, a free media in a democracy, they have to cover terrorist incidents in the aftermath, whatever it is. The question is, how do you cover it and how much do you cover it? And I find it extraordinary that New Zealand after this horrific incident, the first thing that happened is that the Prime Minister said we are not going mention the name of the perpetrator. That’s very important because whatever he wrote in his manifesto and whatever I know from many many past incidents, these people want a great deal of attention and publicity. If you’re going to deprive them of that, I’m not saying that we don’t have lone wolf or lone actor attacks anymore, but I think it’s a very good way to deny them the attention they crave. And it might not lead to as much copy catting as we have experienced before.
Nancy: So, you do believe there should be standards enforced for media outlets reporting on terrorism?
Brigitte: No, not enforced. I don’t want any censorship or laws that impede the media, but I think that it seems to me, that at least now in New Zealand the journalists are more aware of what they should report and how they should report. That has to come from the media, I think with press freedom comes responsibility and I’m more than pleased, looking at the New Zealand case, from now on I will follow their coverage much closer because, as I said before, that could become a model. Now I’m not naïve enough to say that will be now copied by many media organisations. Maybe over time there will be some change.
Nancy: In your opinion, do you believe the current media landscape helps or supports the terrorist agenda, even indirectly?
Brigitte: Yes, and that’s a major point. Research today, communication research in terrorism, is basically solely directed at online violent extremism, also right-wing extremism, which is of course good because for many years that was ignored. However, we ought not to ignore the mainstream media. I think that it might be as important, if not more important, to terrorists. I’m pretty sure you people have followed ISIS a great deal. Their media production, of course, has dramatically declined since they lost all of their territory. They were always attacking the mainstream media and when I look back terrorist organisations for a long time have been obsessed with mainstream media. They need the mainstream media to give them attention, to report their causes, their justifications. Just take the Christchurch case. Most people did not find by themselves the video that the guy streamed. Now when I woke up a couple of hours later, I had it within about 2 minutes and I’m pretty sure you had it. But, you know, 99.9% of the people or more, learnt through the mainstream media what was in the video and what was in the manifesto.
Nancy: This reporting, do you think it is only related to the events that are covered? Or does it depend also on how they are covered? For instance, the terminology that’s being used, when the media used the term ‘lone wolf’ that is something that a suicide attacker wants to be considered as, or for instance in religious terminology using the word Jihad which actually means ‘effort’ or ‘supplication’ of sorts.
Brigitte: Yes that’s very important, I think calling ISIS the ‘Islamic State’, it gives it a certain legitimacy or when you call it the Caliphate, that is a legitimate term or the ‘Caliph al-Baghdadi.’ And it’s not very good when the media simply takes the terms that the terrorists like. Terrorists, generally speaking, they like to use terms that makes them believe that they belong to the military, soldiers, commanders. It is not very good when that is being blindly repeated by the media but also by the authorities, people who deal with counter-terrorism and more often politicians who do not have deeper knowledge but just talk to the public about it. I think there has to be far more awareness. Language matters.
Nancy: Ok, I’ll go to my final question. As you know, the Coalition, one of its five efforts is communications and defeating Daesh’s ideology. What would be the three most important things that the Coalition could do in the next 12 months to continue the success against Daesh propaganda.
Brigitte: I think you must try to counter their narratives; you have to fight people who are credible in circles that are susceptible to radicalisation or are already radicalised. And I think that that can be only people who may have left groups like ISIS. Ideally, I would think these have to be, you know Muslims, who have been radicalised and have learned that that’s not the way to go. I don’t think that you and I could speak to them, we can advise, we may know what affective propaganda is but the people who actually executed need to be people who are very credible, who are fellow Muslims, who have gone through similar experiences. And if I were in charge of counter-terrorism in this particular case, that’s what I would try to concentrate on.
Nancy: Brigitte Nacos, thank you so much for your time and for this wonderful insight, it was certainly a pleasure chatting with you today.
Brigitte: It was a pleasure on my part. Thank you very much.
Nancy: Thank you.