Shortly after news of the Las Vegas shooting broke on Sunday evening, ISIS’s official Amaq News Agency claimed responsibility for the attack. In the subsequent hours, most experts have concluded that the claim was almost certainly bunk. The shooter, Stephen Paddock, so far has not been found to have any established links to ISIS, nor is there any evidence that he shared their worldview. The FBI has publicly stated that Paddock had no connection to international terrorism, a rare step at this early stage of the investigation.
Yet when I searched Google News at around 3 pm Monday, several of the top articles had headlines that clearly treated ISIS’s claim seriously. And these weren’t from fringe outlets; we’re talking Fox News and Newsweek:
If you search Twitter for the word “ISIS,” the first result is an article from the UK’s Independent newspaper that strongly implies ISIS’s claim is credible:
This illustrates a major reason why ISIS might want to make such a transparently false claim. It knows that a number of news outlets will report the claim as if it were credible and that those reports, when amplified by social media, would cause many people to believe they were true. In essence, ISIS is trying to trick thousands of people into believing that it’s scarier than it is — and the Western media is helping them do it.
“To those [who think] that ISIS will be shamed by a fake claim, keep in mind the initial reports, however wrong, are the ones that last forever,” tweets Patrick Skinner, a former CIA counterterrorism official.
Uncritically amplifying ISIS propaganda plays into the group’s hands
It’s a bit irresponsible, journalistically speaking, to report ISIS’s unverified claims of responsibility for violence. Their track record isn’t exactly spotless.
“ISIS in recent months has made a number of demonstrably false claims for attacks and incidents that had no jihadi terror nexus,” writes Paul Cruickshank, the editor-in-chief of the terrorism-focused journal CTC Sentinel. “Exhibit A of a false ISIS claim was their claim for attack on Manila, Philippines casino resort in June. Perpetrator was [an] indebted gambler.”
This is because ISIS is, by all accounts, a diminishing military force. It has lost 90 percent of its peak territory in Iraq and 58 percent of its territory in Syria, per a September estimate from the US Department of State. Its “capital” in the Syrian city of Raqqa is currently under assault — with American allies gearing up for a final push to push ISIS out.
Territorial control used to be ISIS’s calling card, the thing that distinguished the group from its rival al-Qaeda in the eyes of jihadist foot soldiers around the world. With its empire on the brink of collapse, ISIS has instead turned to international terrorist attacks — like the 2015 assault in Paris — as a way of establishing its continued vitality. Claiming responsibility for attacks it didn’t commit is a calculated way of extending this propaganda strategy.
"It seems like they're desperate for attention and will claim just about everything," Colin Clarke, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, told NBC News. "They've lost so much territory, and they fear they're becoming irrelevant."
Media coverage that promotes this line, despite the lack of evidence, helps ISIS’s strategy to succeed. Research online media show that people rarely read past the headlines and first few paragraphs. Stories like this one from Newsweek’s Jack Moore, which doesn’t raise doubts about the claim of responsibility in Las Vegas until the seventh paragraph, helps spread the terrorist group’s spurious claim.
It’s also incredibly hard to correct false information once it has spread into various media ecosystems, especially when that false information is politically convenient. For right-wing outlets especially, making Las Vegas about terrorism rather than gun violence puts them in much more comfortable ideological territory. Hence why some of the more unscrupulous ones, like Gateway Pundit and Infowars, are still amplifying ISIS’s claim of responsibility.
To head this off, mainstream media outlets — the ones that monitor ISIS communication channels directly — have an obligation to be careful in the way they report on ISIS propaganda. They need to avoid parroting unconfirmed information and craft articles around the fact that many people will only see the headlines or the first few paragraphs.
Yet clearly, the Vegas coverage hasn’t lived up to this standard.