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Should News Outlets, Social Media and Internet Services Curb Public Access to ISIS?

02/24/2015 08:20 am ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

Any rational person viewing even a portion of an ISIS snuff video has wondered: Do these maniacs really think that they can win popular support for their cause through grisly online depictions of immolations and mass beheadings? Don't they realize that the vast, vast majority of viewers are sickened by these images and want absolutely nothing to do with the (so-called) Islamic State?

The answer, I fear, is that ISIS's leaders know what they're doing. Although their highly produced videos are repulsive to a mass audience, they are effective in winning over the hearts and twisted minds of a few thousand psychopaths around the world who are so enthralled by the prospect of ritualized murder that they will catch the next train for the killing fields of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya or wherever.

ISIS is not interested in converting entire Muslim populations (other than those they directly control) to their apocalyptic cause. ISIS leaders expect their videos to terrify and terrorize mainstream Muslims (especially Shiites)---as they do Christians, Jews and all other "infidels."

But ISIS's main objective, in using social media and the internet to reach the broadest possible audience, is to find "a few good men": men (and women) who are good, really good, at torture, mayhem and up-close killings that excel in their barbarism and shock value. Good sadists, after all, are hard to find.

It is because of this strategy--broadcasting to millions to recruit a few--that ISIS poses a free speech dilemma. Responsible media have struggled over how to report on ISIS's atrocities, knowing that the group's executions are the ultimate in media events, conducted for the purpose of creating videos that are seen around the world.

Should news media show ISIS's videos, as Fox News recently did (or at least point to them in news accounts)? Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, while unable to prevent the posting of ISIS videos on their services (because the sheer volume of user video precludes pre-screening), have moved quickly to remove the videos, once posted, and to shut down suspected ISIS-affiliated accounts. Still, the horrific videos are readily found on the internet. And all news organizations continue to treat the release of new ISIS videos as major news events (even if they opt not to show the videos).

On the one hand, free speech principles always favor free and open circulation of dissident expression, no matter how heinous. The rationale is a pragmatic one: The best way to defeat a toxic ideology--and what could be more toxic than the genocidal nihilism of ISIS?--is to give it a stage and loudspeaker. Suppress an idea and you risk giving it undeserved legitimacy. But expose it to the competition of uncensored debate and criticism, and it will be revealed as the empty fraud that it is.

On the other hand, the free marketplace of ideas may fail us in the case of ISIS. Free and open debate is, to be sure, a reliable means of turning most of the world--including the clear majority of Muslims--against ISIS. But ISIS is not submitting to the people's choice through democratic elections. It doesn't care about majority opinion; in fact, it wants to terrorize the majority, not win it over. Its videos, remember, are calculated, to recruit a few (or few thousand) psychopaths. And psychopaths attracted to the ISIS death cult are, it is fair to say, unreceptive to the rational back-and-forth of public debate on the merits of Islamist extremism.

I do not mean to suggest that the federal government should take steps to unplug ISIS videos on the internet, even if it could do so (which is doubtful). That would blow too big a hole in first amendment protections. However, news organizations, social media and internet services have editorial discretion--protected by the first amendment--to deny ISIS access to their audiences.

To the extent they do so, more power to them.They are acting responsibly, in my opinion.
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Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. The views expressed here are his alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the FAC Board of Directors.