Yusur Al Bahrani considers the risks of using social media when reporting on terrorism-related stories.

By Yusur Al Bahrani

“Journalists within Borders” is not only my first magazine feature, but is the most challenging work I have ever done. It comes at a time when terrorism news has been occupying mainstream media, from attacks abroad to beheadings to Ottawa shooting. 

Being interested in writing about national security and foreign affairs, I am a journalist within borders, too. Are Canadian journalists missing the real story when reporting on ISIS? In this feature I focus on the risks of using social media in reporting on terrorism-related stories. 

This has been a learning experience: in the past I relied more on posts from social media websites such as Twitter. But after researching this feature, I realized that reporting on ISIS Twitter posts or videos of beheadings on YouTube might be providing precisely the kind of media attention that members of the group want. Do journalists risk becoming mouthpieces of such groups by taking part in the reporting process? I want my readers to answer that question. 

Journalists Within Borders

Scrolling through Twitter one afternoon last September, I came across an account that stood out in an alarming way. “In Iraq killing Shias, etc.,” said the bio of @MuhajirSomali, a supposed Canadian member of ISIS. While I don’t know what he meant by “etc.,” he certainly was claiming he was in Iraq killing Shias and others. His posts were terrifying and I wanted to break the news, so I took a screenshot of his bio. On my Twitter feed I posted: “The #Canadian ISIS member says on his bio on Twitter that he is in #Iraq to kill Shias. #ISIS #NO2ISIS #Canada.” I attached the screenshot as evidence to tell my more than 4,000 followers what this fighter said he was doing in Iraq.

At that time, @MuhajirSomali had fewer than 500 followers on Twitter. My post would amplify his message. But I am far from the only journalist to draw attention to the purported activities of ISIS online. The shocking nature of these posts makes them difficult to ignore.

@MuhajirSomali, along with a second Twitter handle @muhajirsumalee (both now suspended), allegedly belonged to Farah Mohamed Shirdon, a Somali-Canadian from Calgary in his early twenties. He first appeared in a viral April 2014 video, in which he and other foreign fighters burned their passports in a campfire while chanting, “Allah is great” in Arabic. Their threat to North Americans was explicit: “We are coming to you and we will destroy you with Allah’s permission. . . . With Allah’s permission we came to you with slaughter.”

ISIS has become infamous over the past year for its massacres and kidnappings in Iraq and Syria. The extremist group has been fighting a parallel propaganda war on social media. ISIS members use platforms including Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to send their messages and aim for videos of beheadings and other hateful acts to go viral.

The chilling videos showing the beheadings of journalists James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Kenji Goto make another message clear: reporters who go to conflict zones in Iraq and Syria are risking their lives. This makes finding local sources and conducting firsthand research challenging. Without on-the-ground sources, it is tempting for journalists to lean on social media, seeking out users who claim to be ISIS members.

Individual news organizations must decide if and how to use these sources, but the risks in doing so are great. It’s a difficult task to verify that these people are who they claim to be and it’s easy for those reporting on the online activities of ISIS to get the story wrong. Worse, when journalists reproduce social media messages by anonymous ISIS sources without adequate context, they can sensationalize the story, playing into the hands of those who want to spread fear.

To read the rest of “Journalists Within Borders,” please go to the Ryerson Review of Journalism’s website, where it was originally published.

Illustration by Chris Tucker.