For Most, ISIS Online Propaganda Stirs Disgust — But Also Curiosity

KENT, United Kingdom — The self-proclaimed Islamic State has propaganda officers charged with spreading its messages of hatred and violence against everyone they suppose stand in their way. ISIS is very much a terror organization for the 21st century. The use of social media to spread videos showing the killing of innocent civilians provokes nausea and disgust in most people, but according to new research, they also stir a sense of curiosity.

Doctors Simon Cottee and Jack Cunliffe of the University of Kent found that many of those given access to Jihadist Online Propaganda (JOP) experienced a “morbid buzz” that caused them want to watch more atrocity videos. For the study, they surveyed 3,000 young adults — a little more than half from Europe, and the rest from North America — online between September 2016 and March 2017. Ninety-three percent of participants harbored negative feelings towards ISIS, while about 1 percent (34 people) admitted they viewed the group positively. The remainder had a neutral viewpoint of the terror group.

Man looking at computer screen in darkness
The use of social media by ISIS to spread videos showing the killing of innocent civilians provokes nausea and disgust in most people, but according to new research, they also stir a sense of curiosity.

Cottee and Cunliffe created an online survey test for participants to measure their response to English-language JOP video content created by ISIS. While most research into JOP has focused on how it spreads over the Internet and its dissemination of Jihadist messages, this study is one of the first to focus on its audience. Fifty-seven percent of the participants had watched JOP videos before, beyond the short clips shown on cable news networks.

The researchers showed study participants several infamous, violent videos, including the “Although the Disbelievers Dislike It” video featuring the British citizen Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadist John.” After watching most of the video, three-quarters of participants said they were made uncomfortable by it, while two-thirds said it made them sick, and 11 percent said it bored them.

When asked if they wanted to view the video until its bloody end, 33 percent said yes, 23 percent had ambivalent feelings, and 44 percent said they absolutely did not want to see the beheading.

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“For the majority of respondents, while staged beheadings may be uncomfortable, scary, and sickening to watch, they nevertheless make for compelling viewing,” the researchers wrote. “Research on horror films shows that for all the disgust that scenes of graphic violence elicit, audiences are drawn to watch them because of the stimulation and curiosity they arouse. Is this true of ISIS execution videos? Perhaps it is, and there is certainly suggestive anecdotal evidence pointing to a keen interest in ISIS beheading videos in the English-speaking world.”

The full study was published March 22, 2018 in the journal Studies in Conflict and Terrorism.

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