There’s this concept that used to be popular with folks in the early anarchist movements called ‘the propaganda of the deed’. The idea was, that if you wanted the revolutionary overthrow of government and traditional capitalist society, well you needed to strike a match to light that fire. This expressed itself in the form of bombings and the assassination of kings and presidents, in the hope that these small sparks of theatrical violence would be the beginning of a wildfire that would rage into revolution.
The propaganda of the deed survives even now, but it takes the form of ISIS beheadings. Chances are you probably know about the latest ISIS beheading of American aid worker and ex-soldier Peter Kassig. This brings to five the number of Western non-combatants ISIS has killed. The focus on these acts of violence has shortchanged the terrible things ISIS have been doing to their fellow Arabs, including the massacre of Syrian soldiers and the selling into slavery of Yazidis. It does, however, tell us something about how the group operates and how terror has changed not just in the 100 years since the reclusive Leon Czolgosz shot American president William McKinley because he wanted to provoke an uprising of the working man.
For those turn of the century anarchists, this symbolic ‘propaganda of the deed’ might be witnessed by a few thousand people in all its bloody, gruesome glory, but ISIS brings us the propaganda of the deed now in HD. These violent acts and messages of insurrection are beamed across the world to millions of people who can, if they wish, personally view the killings and massacres. Even if we don’t view these videos ourselves we, still get these foreboding images shot through our skulls on the news and social media - armed men in black, standing solid and grim, like knife wielding tombstones in the dry desert air.
Revolutionary pamphlets aren’t printed in grubby ink and distributed at niche bookstores anymore. Every time we switch on the news we are met with an instruction to jihad in the form of these videos. ISIS isn’t like the anarchists with their typo-ridden newsletters of the turn of the century, ISIS has a well edited, cleanly put together magazine that wouldn’t look out of place on the shelves at Easons.
I admit that I can be a bit utopian about the internet, a bit optimistic and visionary about its potential to revolutionise connection and dissolve traditional power structures. I so often describe it as the new printing press and that’s precisely right. But the same printing press that reamed off copies of Martin Luther’s 95 theses and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, also put ink to Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. There is no going back now. We can’t destroy the connected world. Regulating and spying on online activity is not going to stop people using it to spread bad ideas any more than burning copies of Harry Potter for depicting witchcraft stopped children reading it.
But even as ISIS uses the internet to spread their own story, one of sexy resistance, martyrdom and military adventures modelled on Call of Duty, we can use it to fight it. We can fight the simplistic, “good guy vs bad guy”, narratives that create these tensions and conflict through senseless bombing campaigns and the support of despotic regimes. We can spread information further than ever before and support stories and ideas that might not have gotten funding in the days of more top-down, hierarchical news structures.
We can touch the stuff Old Media would not go near with a barge pole. In the new world of Twitter-terror, the only way to counter the spread of evil is to spread the truth.
Photo: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann/ Flickr