“It’s really important for universities and colleges to have a debate about how we handle the new context for our public outreach.”
Michael Krona works at Malmö University where he is currently undertaking research into the media propaganda of the Islamic State terrorist organisation (ISIS). His research includes a study of the organisation’s use of videos to radicalise and recruit new members.
“It’s not just about brutality. They’re also trying to create a sense of belonging so that people feel solidarity with ISIS.”
He sees in the videos a visual language recognisable from Western popular culture, so that they appear like a real-life action film, a language seen in details such as the shooting angle, lighting or clothing.
“The brutality is incorporated into something that feels like fiction, making it easier for potential followers to grasp. The violence is glorified and presented as a natural part of the message, something that has to be done to achieve the organisation’s purpose”.
Public outreach of great importance
Throughout his research career, Michael Krona has attached great importance to public outreach. He blogs and is active on Facebook and Twitter.
“I think public outreach is extremely important and have always taken it extremely seriously. I have tried to be as visible as I can and to share information about my research and my research interests in ways other than through written scientific texts.”
But his openness has come at a price. Since the Paris attacks in November last year, his name has been increasingly visible in the media and he has also become well-known in Jihadi circles.
“My visibility, and the fact that I am looking at ISIS with a critical eye has meant that I have quickly gained lots of new followers on social media.”
Many were supporters of various Islamist groups. They started to follow Krona on Twitter, retweet his posts and add him to various lists. He could block a follower one day only to find that he had three new ones the next.
“They’re like bacteria. They have so many accounts that you can’t do much about it.”
Desire to silence dissenting voices
“And that’s how it’s been ever since,” says Krona. “Sometimes the threats have been more or less direct, but more often it’s been about wanting to silence voices critical of ISIS”.
“It’s an unpleasant feeling of being watched. I can’t think of any other contemporary extremist organisation that is as outward-focussed – with tentacles out on the internet so that it knows what is being written about it – as ISIS.”
Has this affected your attitude to communicating your research?
“Yes, it has. I am more careful about the subjects I choose to express an opinion on and where I choose to be visible.”
For example, Krona has started to decline TV interviews if he does not feel he has control over the end result. And he is more likely to say yes to written media outlets that allow him to see the article before it is published.
“I don’t want my words taken out of context so that they can be misunderstood. That doesn’t mean I am trying to hide altogether. I continue to blog, remain visible and agree to interviews, but I am more careful about what I say.”
For his current project he is also trying to follow a number of jihadi fora so that he can see what is being written, which means that security issues around technology are important.
“I try to be aware of the digital trail I am leaving and what it might imply.”
Another issue is the mental strain his research puts him under.
“Looking at this material has an effect on me as a human being. In the end you become indifferent.”
Krona has therefore had counselling from his employer. He thinks it is important that researchers working in difficult fields get help and support for the emotional investment the research demands.
He understands that some researchers refrain from sharing information about their research for fear of reprisals and believes there needs to be an internal discussion in the workplace about how to manage the new context for public outreach.
“All researchers know that they are expected to get out there and be visible with their research, but it is quite difficult to do anything about the type of consequence that is hard to pin down, such as my feeling of being watched.”
Self-censorship has serious consequences
Krona himself feels that he has had been helped by having opportunities to discuss these types of issue.
“There are fora where I’ve been able to have discussions with, say, the security department or my head of department. But whether this happens in other countries I can’t say”.
Krona thinks that the consequences of researchers self censoring could be extremely serious.
“It brings enormous risks and would be a threat to democracy, but on the other hand I don’t know what the best solution is,” he says. We’re facing a new reality and we need to take a position on it.”