Just when I was wondering how I might keep myself busy after finishing my book manuscript, I got an email from the editors of a forthcoming special issue on “ISIS Media and Communication Beyond the Spectacle.” I’ve been cultivating a minor fascination with infographics both about and by ISIS for awhile, so I was thrilled to propose the following contribution:
Compared to the more spectacular elements of its media repertoire—the slick recruitment campaigns on social media, the artfully composed battlefield footage, the grisly executions—ISIS’s infographics may seem dull, even trivial. Indeed, they have proven easy to overlook. With the attention of newsmedia and audiences alike trained on the group’s suicide bombings, beheadings, abductions, hacks, and destroyed antiquities, these data visualizations have gone largely unremarked, eliciting more bemusement than serious consideration. Against the tendency to discount these images, however, I argue that when ISIS turns toward charts and diagrams to represent its operations, it launches a stealthy but substantial epistemological challenge to media outlets that depict it as backward and irrational and rely on command of information as an index of Western power.
Contemporary infographics are the product of thousands of years of evolution in information design and visual communication, but digital technologies have simplified their compilation, production, and circulation; consequently, infographics are newly ubiquitous, particularly in digital journalism. Essentially, infographics are technologies for managing excess and unthinkability. They make large quantities of data about complex social, cultural, and political phenomena accessible by condensing and organizing it into a comprehensible visual narrative. (As a practical matter, they also serve as effective hooks for readers who increasingly expect news to be entertaining as well as informative.) Consequently, Western news sources have relied heavily on infographics to describe and explain ISIS and the sprawling conflicts in which it is involved. These graphics vary in their levels of detail and interactivity, but work to locate ISIS geopolitically, cartographically, and ideologically, giving a coherent visual shape to the otherwise frighteningly amorphous entity of the ‘terror network.’ In this way, they exercise a degree of epistemological control over the threat. Against the pervasive and terrifying idea that ISIS is uncontainable, such infographics locate it logically in space and time, reassuringly emplotting the mysterious enemy in, and as, data points.
When ISIS itself turns to infographics, the group co-opts this epistemological strategy. By its fluency with this form of communication, ISIS demonstrates, once again, its capacity to leverage modern media for its own ends. Moreover, it reinvigorates the threat that infographics might otherwise have helped to defuse. Here, the group portrays itself as lethally rational, almost actuarial in its sensibility, and methodically expansive in its reach and ambition. Compared to those produced by their Western counterparts, ISIS’s infographics are generally (but not always) less conceptually elaborate, technically involved, and aesthetically sophisticated. Unsurprisingly, there are differences in content as well; some infographics in Western news sources try to humanize the victims of ISIS attacks by providing personal photos and biographies, while ISIS tracks things like the number of “apostates” it has inspired to “repent.” And given its strong propagandistic impulse, ISIS’s data likely varies in its accuracy and verifiability. But despite these differences, both types of infographics evince many common focal points. Like Western news sources, ISIS creates infographics to map attacks, plot territorial gains, tally and categorize casualties, and track the types of weapons deployed. Newsmedia and ISIS infographics diverge primarily in their affective resonance, as similar information signifies in radically different ways. Ultimately, by producing and circulating these infographics, ISIS renders simultaneously renders itself more and less intelligible to outsiders: encapsulating its story while confounding prevailing representations as it weaponizes information.
To contextualize these infographics within a broader visual history, I begin with a consideration of the infographic as a visual form, particularly its much-vaunted capacities to manage complexity and illuminate solutions. From there, I provide a summary of ISIS’s general media strategy, with a particular attention to its use of the visual and adaptation of Western conventions, techniques, and styles. Relatedly, I also trace ISIS’s continuities with and deviations from Al-Qaeda’s media platform. During its time as the foremost jihadist group in the world, Al-Qaeda likewise provoked observers to fear and puzzlement when it utilized ‘new’ media for its communiqués; by most accounts, ISIS has far surpassed its antecedent on this front. Refracting this background through visual culture studies and political theory, I then turn to the core of my analysis: an exploration of the centrality of the infographic to the media landscape that ISIS inhabits and creates. Accordingly, I provide an overview of the infographics produced on both sides, focusing on mainstream American newsmedia in comparison with infographic work by ISIS and its affiliates (both in graphics released as stand-alone documents and as part of its annual reports). Moving beyond the analysis of these texts and the militarized visual practice of infographic production, I conclude the paper with a theorization of the epistemological instabilities generated by this stochastic, unbounded, and seemingly intractable conflict.