In April, British Pathé uploaded its entire collection of 85,000 newsreels to YouTube. From 1908 until the late 1940s, when television gradually supplanted them, these reels gave the public what newspapers and radio couldn’t: a visual, moving record of current affairs. The iconic footage from the Second World War – including Hitler’s early speeches and the bombing of Hiroshima – were also useful for the government’s propaganda effort. In those days, controlling the narrative was as simple as keeping an eye on a few newspapers, a handful of movie studios and the BBC.
One of the wonders of the internet is how irrelevant it makes the distinction between “people” and “the media”. Was it a journalist or a blogger who broke the story? Who cares, if it gets a minister sacked? Today, a smartphone can be as powerful as a media agency.
Consider that 11 years ago many of us saw the US-led invasion of Iraq through the eyes of John Simpson, who spoke to BBC viewers live via satellite phone from a road near Mosul and explained that it was “a bit of a disaster, I have to say” that the Americans had bombed one of their own convoys and killed around ten people. The broadcast was remarkable for its intensity and candidness – at one point a soldier interrupts Simpson to point out that the journalist is bleeding – but at root, the footage is little different to a Pathé newsreel. It might be more immediate and more explicit but it is still war reportage by a journalist whose job is to tell us what he thinks we need to know.
It is too dangerous for most journalists to report from Syria or Isis-controlled territories in Iraq. Our perception of what is happening comes instead from the fighters themselves. They are using Twitter and Instagram and relying on the disturbingly well-organised Isis public relations team – which knew, for instance, that the best way to spread videos of the murder of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit was to upload them to sites such as LiveLeak, rather than to send them to major media outlets.
Different Isis groups each have their own “corporate” Twitter accounts – which brag about victories both real and imagined. Individual fighters use apps such as WhatsApp, Viber and Kik to communicate with each other and social media sites including Twitter and Ask.fm to troll their critics. There’s a subgroup of fighters who Instagram photos of their guns, snacks and cats.
Many of these young men are showing off because they want to prove to their friends – some of whom are in the west – that joining Isis is fun. Like execution or recruitment videos, social media jokes are an exercise in propaganda. No wonder an Isis fighter tweeted: “Praise be to Allah, who gave Twitter to the mujahideen so that they may share their joys and not have to listen to the BBC, al-Arabiya, al-Jazeera.”
And no wonder that from 13 June, the Iraqi government began blocking social media and video sites across the country. Isis has a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of soft power.