This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
ISIS has a savvy PR department. So much so that Australia's Lowy Institute has suggested Western media put "propaganda warnings" on ISIS-owned productions. According to Lauren Williams, former editor at Beirut's Daily Star, the "Islamic State has been able to exert significant control over the way in which they are depicted and the way in which they are perceived."
An über-violent death cult wreaking havoc in broken countries may not appear to be providing a good PR education, but Christiana Spens, author of Shooting Hipsters: Rethinking Dissent in the Age of PR, argues otherwise. She doesn't condone ISIS but asks the reader to consider Islamic State's effective use of social media and video. PR is about control—control of narrative, image, and discussion. "It's not about just getting publicity," she tells me via Skype. "It's about getting the right publicity."
Shooting Hipsters argues that ISIS has "fought back in the war of images" with the West by producing its own media that eulogizes its own actions. New technology has meant that ISIS video production is far superior to al Qaeda's classic "Bin Laden chatting shit in a cave" series. ISIS can also communicate its terror directly to the enemies and potential supporters through mobile video and social media. For a regressive cult, ISIS employs very progressive PR tools, even mimicking the austerity propaganda poster "Keep Calm and Carry On" with "Keep Calm (and Support ISIS)."
Spens says that a lot of "dissenting groups don't have publicists in the way that companies or governments do." However, new media "lends itself to grassroots communication and mobilization, or recruitment, giving dissenting groups a way to connect with more people at that level. It has given them efficient ways to organize themselves, to discuss their values, goals, and strategies, and to create an identity that is not reliant on being geographically in or from the same place." Black Lives Matter, which started as a hashtag on Twitter, is a good example. By recording videos of their own protests, connecting via social media across the country, #BlackLivesMatter activists have been able to produce a counter narrative to police brutality in America. PR is no longer the preserve of PR people. You can get seen and heard without paying an agency to do it.
Dissenting groups would be well versed to heed the mistakes of the "narcissist" terrorist. The murder of Lee Rigby, Spens says, "was obviously designed with the media in mind." Michael Adebolajo spent time after his brutal attack making a speech to camera phones held by the public. It is bizarre to re-watch this; citizens walk calmly passed Adebolajo as he holds a bloodied machete, and Rigby lies dead in the road. The problem—aside from brutally killing someone—is Adebolajo's lack of control over the media representation of himself. Unlike members of ISIS who script their videos, Spens says Adebolajo came across as "nonsensical even when [his] supposed point was explained for everyone to hear… his stunt was quickly hijacked to become propaganda for the Establishment rather than against it." Funnily enough, murdering a bloke in the street can quickly become a PR nightmare.
All throughout the Irish conflict, the UK media was often required to stop or postpone the broadcast of programs relating to Ireland. Today it is much harder for the government to silence dissent through censorship because new media has changed the way we watch the news. Gerry Adams's Twitter feed might be a joke today, but imagine if the IRA had had the ability to host its own videos and communicate arguments outside traditional media. Christiana says that "the media blackout during the Troubles meant that traditional media had no access or interest in representing the Republican cause or the more complex reasons behind the violence, such as events like Bloody Sunday. If there had been Twitter or other forms of new media, I'm sure that it would have had a huge effect on how the conflict played out."
You can also learn from those jazz-handed hippies of the Occupy movement. Spens claims the "general impression seemed to be that the Occupy movement was chasing an impossible dream, and its days were numbered." Media reports to the public, as with most peaceful anti-capitalist action, caricatured Occupy a naïve, trivial, and middle-class distraction. Although Occupy was born in the internet age, unlike ISIS, there was little internal control over the movement's public image, perhaps a result of its anti-hierarchical ideals.
The media focused on the legality of Occupy. Spens is worried that "protest is still just about legal, but it is becoming less and less so." She suggests spending time trying to keep protest legal is as important as protesting itself: "The government is baiting protest, and if we're not careful, we won't be able to protest at all."
However, when there is public protest, you should mostly forget about the established media, suggests Spens.
Shooting Hipsters compares the media treatment of Alfie Meadows (injured by a police officer) and Charlie Gilmour (pictured swinging from the Union Jack on the Cenotaph). The police officer was never named or vilified in the press, and there was no massive outcry on Alfie Meadows's behalf. Gilmour, on the other hand, became a poster boy for the protests and discredited the action. "If any good should come from that day," Spens says, "it is to learn that protest can be a limiting tool when the papers seem generally interested in playing pantomime."
Although Shooting Hipsters is primarily about image and new media, it also recognizes that these things are no good just by themselves. Like the Focus E15 occupations, work must also be done to connect with a community and work tirelessly off camera. "Sometimes no PR is the best PR," Spens says. "A movement that is embraced by its own community, whether local, cultural, or political, is likely to be more sustainable than one that is not."
So even if you've got a media degree in video production, but you're just annoyed at the new cafe round the corner, it's not going to happen. Find something you sympathize with that is already working hard on the ground and help elevate its PR to the next level.
Shooting Hipsters is out this week from Repeater Books.
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