Ethics is Method, Method is Ethics: What Terrorism Researchers Should Know

By Carol Winkler

One of the attendees at the recent Ethics of Terrorism Research workshop held at Swansea University poignantly observed, “ethics is method, method is ethics.” This rich concept has various implications for how terrorism researchers should think about their work. To start such a conversation, I will revisit Simon Cottee and Jack Cunliffe’s widely read “Watching ISIS: How Young Adults Engage with Official English-Language ISIS Videos” published online on 22 March, 2018 in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. I think that the article provides a useful starting point due to (1) its focus on an emerging area within terrorism studies, and (2) its own expanded discussion of the ethical issues facing audience researchers examining reactions to terrorist groups’ online messaging campaigns. Here, I’ll argue that a deeper understanding of the terrorist group’s communication strategies both by researchers and Institutional Review Boards (IRB) would strengthen the ethical/methodological practices of audience researchers.

Cottee and Cunliffe’s article identifies several worthwhile steps for navigating the myriad of ethical questions involved in audience studies of terrorist content. For example, the two authors detail various steps for creating message stimuli for study participants. Cottee and Cunliffe indicate that they limited viewer exposure time to the content, explicitly specified the source of the content through inclusion of identifiable group brands, utilized content representative of previously identified campaign themes, employed pro and con messaging strategies to minimize possible influence of the video content, and removed scenes of ultraviolence to mitigate risks to viewers. Each of these methodological decisions helped the authors successfully traverse the expectations of their local IRB.

But did the authors’ methodological choices appropriately balance important ethical and methodological considerations? Consider the authors’ decision to replace scenes of “ultraviolence” from ISIS videos, such as gunshots, beheadings, or other forms of gruesome attacks, with scenes of “promised violence” that stopped short of showing the outcome of the final, deadly acts. No doubt, such content edits made the study more palatable to the IRB, as the removal of ultraviolent images would seemingly cause less risk to study participants.

This replacement strategy in response to ethical expectations for human subject research, however, did interact with important methodological considerations needed to produce valid experimental findings. To explain, I need to explicate Barbie Zelizer’s (2010) concept of the “about to die” trope.  Seeking to understand why certain images have sustained resonance within the media environment, Zelizer examines recurrent photographs that remained in circulation in U.S. and British newspapers in the 19thand 20thcenturies. She concludes that a recurrent visual strategy often present in images with wide and lasting circulation is the “about to die” trope. The trope inherently utilizes the subjunctive voice, which illustrates “what should be” rather than the standard practice of showing “what is” in photojournalism. Zelizer theorizes that about to images are particularly potent because their meaning can change over time, they encourage the use of the audience’s imagination to fill in the events before and after the snapped photograph, and they elicit a set of unpredictable emotional responses from viewers based on how they fill in preceding and succeeding events.

Researchers at Georgia State University have systematically examined ISIS’s use of the “about to die” trope in its online media campaign. Winkler et al. (2016) show how ISIS rendered the online environment a site of terrorism by transforming the trope’s standard usage into one exclusively focused on intentional acts of bodily injury against the rank-and-file. Subsequent studies show that ISIS’s use of “about to die” images is significantly higher in the group’s Arabic than in its English publications (Winkler et al., 2018) and that ISIS uses the trope more frequently when experiencing intensified military pressure from coalition forces (El-Damanhoury et al., 2018).

Knowledge of the “about to die” trope and ISIS ‘s standard usage of the trope provides a new context for understanding Cottee and Cunliffe’s replacement of ultraviolence with promised violence to create ethical stimuli for study participants. Were the “promised violence” edits simply an insertion of the about to die trope? One possible answer lies in the reported results of the study. The researchers conclude, “there is a morbid buzz associated with ISIS atrocity videos, and that for all the disgust, discomfort, and fear they evoke, something makes us—or many of us, at least—want to look at them.” Perhaps the respondents’ desire to look did result from the content of ISIS videos, but the methodological decision to embed examples of the “about to die” trope in the experimental stimuli might also explain the study’s findings. If Zelizer is correct, the audience’s imagination and the emotional reactions to the trope may function as primary causes behind the subjects’ morbid fascination.

Terrorism researchers creating experimental stimuli to assess audience response to online media campaigns need to keep abreast of the tropes and figures that characterize a group’s online messaging campaign. By knowing the communication strategies the terrorist groups utilize and understanding which ones move audiences when deployed in other types of media contexts, researchers can strike the appropriate balance between method and ethics. IRBs should also reconsider whether an insistence on replacing ultraviolence with promised violence is an appropriate path for protecting study participants.

Carol Winkler is Professor of Communication Studies at Georgia State University.


Cottee, S. and Cunliffe, J. (2018). Watching ISIS:  How young adults engage with official English language videos. Studies of Conflict and Terrorism. DOI: 10.1080/1057610X.2018.1444955

Damanhoury, K. E., Winkler, C. K., Dicker, A., & Kaczkowski, W. (2018). Examining the military media nexus in ISIS’s provincial visual campaign. Dynamics in Asymmetric Conflict,11(2) 89-102.

Winkler, C., Damanhoury, K.E., Dicker, A., and Lemieux, A.F., (2016). The medium is terrorism: Transformation of the about to die trope in DabiqTerrorism and Political Violence. DOI: 10.1080/09546553.2016.1211526

Winkler, C. K., Damanhoury, K. E., Dicker, A. and Lemieux, A. F. (2018). Images of death and dying in ISIS media: A comparison of English and Arabic print publications. Media Conflict and War. DOI: org/10.1177/1750635217746200

Zelizer B (2010) About to Die: How News Images Move the Public. New York: Oxford University Press.

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