With journalists on the front line of the ISIS propaganda war, how should they balance the need to inform with the risk of spreading disinformation?
As an intelligence analyst, I realised very quickly that when you compare private words with public actions, people lie, a lot.
This is not an insurmountable problem however. Over time, it becomes easier to identify when this is happening and more importantly why. Intelligence is more than just what people say. It’s also the how, the why and the who.
Using all of this information, you try to convey a source’s reliability and access to the subject at hand. Fail to do so and your reader can be faced with multiple and often contradictory pieces of information. Unable to separate the wheat from the chaff, decision makers can use the chaff (knowingly or otherwise) to inform government policy.
From an outsider’s perspective, it appears that similar rules apply to journalists. As do the similarly disastrous consequences for using unreliable sources. So how should they (and we) approach ISIS in this context?
The ISIS presence on social media offers journalists direct access to individuals located thousands of miles away in the Middle East. Why rely on official or unofficial briefings from Government officials when a quick Twitter search can put you in contact with foreign fighters affiliated with ISIS, al-Nusra or even the Kurdish militia?
But where intelligence agencies have datasets and techniques that can contextualise their leads, how can a journalist be certain about an individual’s access, reliability or even location?
Overt and covert contact between Western journalists and ISIS fighters has so far produced mixed results. When done well, it has delivered vital journalism, informing but not alarming the public while providing insight into how terrorist organisations operate online. In the context of countering online radicalisation, what could be more important?
Unfortunately, direct interaction with ISIS has also led to less balanced reporting, including recent reports of an imminent ISIS attack in the UK. Now I’m sure that some of the information in the Sky News story was ‘true’. But from an informed outsider’s perspective at least, it appears that the undercover journalists paid insufficient attention to why they were given so much information about ISIS tactics and intent.
Because when it comes to lying, terrorist recruiters and radicalisers are second to none. They tailor their approach to elicit a response of their choosing. When ISIS feeds a ‘wannabe jihadi’ information about other attack cells in the UK, are they influencing or informing? After all, part of the lure of ISIS is brotherhood, belonging and a shared identity. How better to convince an individual to carry out an attack than to reassure them that they are not alone?
And if ISIS suspected the motivations of the new, ‘inquisitive’ recruit in the UK, what better way to test them than by giving a goldmine of information? Attack targets; a high-profile event; a new capability and focus. It’s counter-intelligence 101.
It’s unlikely that spreading disinformation was their primary aim. After all, next time they might be speaking to a bona fide recruit. But the operation has already served it’s purpose from an ISIS perspective.
In return for the time spent grooming two potential attackers, ISIS has secured global headlines, tightened security arrangements, and increased the fear of a terror attack (already heightened beyond reality). And UK intelligence and law enforcement agencies may have wasted valuable time and resources chasing up false leads.
That isn’t to say that the media should shy away from direct interaction with terror groups. The media can expose terrorist modus operandi, tactics and hypocrisy in a way that no Government briefing can. Nor should journalists rely on the drip feed of information from authorities with a vested and sometimes political interest in how and when they share it.
But there should be a greater awareness that the media is on the frontline in the war to counter ISIS propaganda. And that countering the ISIS message doesn’t just involve exposing the reality of life under ISIS rule in Syria and Iraq, or condemning their brutality. Momentum and success is at the core of the ISIS brand. So the media (and their Governments) should avoid exaggerating or inflating ISIS capabilities and operational reach.
In this instance, the apparent imminence of the attack meant that waiting to assess the reliability of the informant wasn’t an option. And as in counter-terrorism more generally, the absence of an attack doesn’t necessarily mean that the information was false.
But by reporting disinformation or propaganda as fact, the media runs the risk of making the job of the ISIS media team a lot easier. Because the end-result will be more column inches about ISIS, rising public panic, and an increased likelihood of crowd-sourced copycats seeing validation in their attack planning.
David Wells worked for UK and Australian intelligence agencies between 2005 and 2014, specialising in counter-terrorism.