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The global media is being manipulated for real-time gain on the battlefield, and as such it is no longer just an observer of human conflict - it is an active participant, writes C August Elliott.
On Wednesday morning, I woke up to an email from an ABC producer asking me to write an article about Reece Harding, a 23-year-old Australian killed in Syria on Tuesday.
Reece, who I'd never met before, died after stepping on a landmine while fighting with the Kurds. The basic news was this - last week Reece Harding was alive. Now he is dead. And now, a newscaster was asking me to write about it and get a piece out there while his death was still topical.
It wasn't a random coincidence that I was being asked to chime in on Reece's death. In February, an obituary I'd written for a friend of mine killed in similar circumstances in Syria had been met with an overwhelming audience response and now the newscaster was coming back for more. This time I was being asked to focus on the role that social media plays in recruiting young Australians to fight in Syria, focusing in particular on the Lions of Rojava Facebook page that is targeting young Australian males to go and fight with the Kurds.
I had been given a headline and a deadline and was being asked to contribute to the media cycle as it grinds the blood and bones of a horrible reality into info-bites for people to digest.
Even though writing this piece about "the latest Australian to die in Syria" seemed to take the "human" out of a human interest story, I agreed to it. But as I sat in the warmth of the early morning sunlight thinking about why a living, breathing young Australian had gone to Syria to fight with a Kurdish militia in the fight against Islamic State, I realised that in contributing to the global media obsession with Syria, IS and "the foreign fighter phenomenon" it was quite possible that I was part of the problem. Why did Reece go, I asked myself? There were plenty of brutal conflicts in the world where innocent people were suffering. Why were foreign fighters flocking to Syria and not the Central African Republic (CAR), for example?
In January, on a bus transiting from Northern Mali into Mauritania I sat next to a refugee from CAR who had seen members of his own family raped and cannibalised by militants. His sister-in-law literally had her heart ripped out and eaten by them. So why had atrocities faced by civilians in CAR failed to generate an influx of foreign fighters? Where were the internet jihadists defending CARs oppressed Muslims? Where were the Westerners to fight the jihadists? The reason why there aren't any foreign fighters in CAR is because CAR doesn't receive the media coverage that Syria does and so the conflict remains a local one. A forgotten conflict.
As such, the reason that foreign fighters are flocking to Syria in unprecedented numbers is because the media, mirroring a trend in the public's thinking, has developed an obsession with Syria - in particular IS's activities in Syria. Manipulating the media and hijacking the global information-space to generate attention is a core part of the strategy of groups like Al Qaeda and IS. Indeed, if we look at jihadist primary sources like "The Management of Savagery", a strategy document published online in 2004, a major theme of jihadist violence is to leverage the brutality of the action (be it a terrorist attack or a live beheading on video) for propaganda value in order to lure enemies like the United States into long, drawn-out wars that will ultimately generate backlash from the global Muslim population. You can't claim that "crusaders" are attacking Muslims in Iraq and Syria unless they actually are, follows the logic. As far as IS is concerned, the reason they create slick, English-language execution videos featuring the live immolation of prisoners of war is because they want to create clickbait for their activities that feeds their recruitment.
IS is manipulating us and the global information-space for actual real-time gain on the battlefield, and as such the global media is no longer "just" an observer of human conflict - it is an active participant in human conflict. Like the bratty toddler showing his mother the china teapot he just broke, the Islamic State desperately wants the media to pay attention every time it locks people in cages and drowns them in a swimming pool.
Similarly, Kurdish militia groups, in their search for volunteers, are now taking to the internet. The "Lions of Rojava" Facebook page is one of these online recruiting groups, actively manipulating young Australian men into leaving their homes to travel to a place they really know nothing about other than what they've seen on the news.
It would be easy for me to spend 2000 words hating on The Lions of Rojava Facebook page for encouraging a friend of mine to fight and die, for possibly no reason, in a foreign country. But blaming the Lions of Rojava Facebook page for the foreign fighter phenomenon is kind of like saying that people only join the Australian military because of what they read on the Defence Force Recruiting website.
The truth is social media, like the broader process of globalisation of which it is a part, is neither a good nor a bad thing. It simply is. That is to say, the existence of social media is now a fact. As such it is also a fact that in the Information Age we are going to hear about atrocities in places like Syria and CAR almost in real time. Some atrocities will generate attention. Some atrocities won't. And it's also a fact that young men will respond to those atrocities that do manage to generate attention. These responses will be quick and sudden, seemingly random - the quickening of young men to arms.
Without the constant media attention surrounding IS's atrocities in Syria, Reece Harding and Ash Johnston would never have even known about the Lions of Rojava Facebook page. So how can we possibly lay all the blame on one recruiting tool when in some ways all newscasters are equally responsible for constantly reminding young Australians what IS is doing. Similarly, it's unfair and too easy to attack "the media" for doing its job. The job of those in the media is to report the news. We need the media to cover wartime atrocities like those being committed by IS. And it's also difficult to suggest that these atrocities should be ignored or downplayed.
But instead of being simply a passive broadcasting platform, maybe our public conversation needs to put context to IS's atrocities - explaining why IS filmed James Foley's execution rather than just focusing on the headlines. Why did IS film it? Because they want to manipulate us into watching it.
Last month in the New York Times, Rukmini Callimachi, one of the best reporters covering the global spread of militant jihadism, published a piece about how a female American Sunday school teacher became a convert to the IS cult over Twitter. Before James Foley's videotaped execution this woman had never heard of IS, much as many have never even heard of the war in the Central African Republic. But after the initial shock of the media reports, she developed a strange curiosity with IS. Who were this group? Why were they doing this? This led her to Twitter and to long conversations with internet jihadists who, after months of continued online manipulation managed to convince her to become an "IS bride" in Syria.
Of course, it is easy to blame the online jihadists for manipulating this woman. These are not only intellectually-lacking but also dangerous people. But what drove the Sunday school teacher to Tweet the #ISfanboys in the first place? The explosion of everything IS into the global public conversation, that's what.
No one is suggesting we return to a state of ignorance as a now globally-informed public. More than 100 years after the Armenian Genocide occurred, the mass slaughter of the Armenian community in Anatolia is barely recognised. Atrocities need to be known about and talked about - if only to prevent a repeat of history.
But instead of giving IS a platform every time they do something evil, and instead of letting events without context flood the minds of our youth perhaps, our public conversation should focus not so much on the latest thing that IS has done (that is, headline journalism) but instead be an exchange of ideas about what we are going to do about IS. Indeed, what are we going to do about IS? Because evidently, young people like Ash Johnston and Reece Harding weren't happy with what was being done and instead made a mistake that cost them their lives.
We need to reclaim control of the conversation about Syria, if only to prevent our young people from travelling there to join the fight - on either side. For my part in preventing young people from travelling to a foreign warzone to die for no reason, I'll share the story of the small box of possessions that the mother of my great-grand-uncle received after he died in World War I. In the box was a small bible, a few handwritten letters and a type set letter from the Canadian army saying that he was killed by a grenade. That is all that remains in this world of my father's grandfather's brother. If you ask most people today what World War I was all about (apart from vague aspersions about empire and arms races) they probably can't tell you much except for that a lot of people died.
At an impressionable age, my dad considered travelling to Nicaragua and joining the Sandanistas as a foreign fighter. He was driven by the "idiocy of youth", as he described it to me. He's sure that if he went he wouldn't have survived. But in and amongst this planned adventure in militarism, it was the image of that box of my great-grand-uncle's possessions that stopped him from becoming one of Lenin's "useful idiots". Instead, he decided to unplug from that horrible theoretical world of Nicaragua of which he really knew nothing and travelled to Greece where he met my mother.
The political argument against individuals going to Syria to fight IS on their own terms, regardless of the Australian Government's current policy to arm and train the Kurds, is obvious. An individual taking up arms in a foreign war zone undermines the state's ability to maintain a monopoly over the legitimate use of force - a principle upon which our society is built and a part of the social contract that is signed by every Australian every time we go to the polls to decide on a new government. We give the government of the day the right to declare war on our behalf. And that is how it should be. It's also worth mentioning that the latest Facebook campaign on the Lions of Rojava page is strongly anti-Turkey, a country that Australia has good diplomatic relations with.
So what could I add about Reece that I didn't already cover with Ash or that hasn't already been covered by countless other news corporations hungrily throwing baited headlines into the online pond as they fish for clicks? We have a rough idea from the comments made by Reece and his family what seemed to drive him - an abhorrence for IS's garish sadism and a desire to do something about it. But the way he responded to IS's horror was probably an emotional and perhaps not a logical response.
Many young men of my generation have a lot of soul-searching, and perhaps rethinking to do, and, if you ask me, media broadcasters need to consider whether the future of "news" should be about headline creation and raptorial marketing in tragedy or whether it should be about providing meaningful context to global events - not just observation but explanation.
From what I can see, the current understanding of the Syrian conflict has been hijacked by IS's corpse-spattered message - and we have given fools like Jihadi John exactly what they have been crying out for: attention.
I don't know how to stop foreign fighters going to Syria apart from simply highlighting to would-be foreign fighters that by going there you are becoming one of those "useful idiots" - for either side. I don't have all the answers. All I can think about is how sad it is that I only know Reece Harding's name because of the way in which he died.
C August Elliott is a former soldier. He completed foreign language (Arabic and French) and anthropology degrees to the Masters level at the ANU and now specialises in conflict ethnography and political anthropology in the Islamic world. Follow him on Twitter.