Terrorism and Technology: The Front End

By Cori E. Dauber and Mark D. Robinson

Despite the fact that there is a robust conversation regarding “terrorism and technology,” that discussion uniformly addresses – as near as we can tell – the back end, the dissemination of what terrorists have already produced. We have found virtually nothing in the popular press[1] and nothing in the academic literature about the technology involved in the production of those materials.[2] But the technologies available to support content production have changed dramatically in the last few years, and those changes have had major consequences for the quality of these materials.

Available technologies influence jihadist propaganda product and changes in these technologies can be seen in the materials being posted today.[3] At a time just after HD cameras were made available and affordable to the semi-professional market, approximately 2005, the market saw an inverse relationship between price and quality became the norm. This is a recognizable pattern in technology. What starts as being priced far out of reach of most consumers rapidly becomes something that the average consumer can afford.

What has changed is the quality of equipment amateurs can find within reach of their budget, and the results they can reasonably expect from that equipment. Today a DSLR high definition video camera can be purchased for under $1,500. Other technologies reflect the same ease of acquisition. For example, image stabilization matters to the end product because it produces a less subjective camera position. In recent years not only has affordable hardware made huge leaps in terms of what’s possible when it comes to image stabilization (and resolution), but the software, actually integrated into cameras as well as in editing software, assists in stabilizing shots made with HD video cameras.

Other technologies have recently made possible the same shots as before, but for much less money, meaning that shots previously possible only for Hollywood professionals are now available to amateurs if they know what they are doing. Drones with stabilization software have replaced putting a cameraman into a helicopter, obviously an enormously expensive proposition. And gimbaled devices, a form of image stabilization hardware, are available to the consumer as well; neither costs more than several hundred dollars and they offer the same options as equipment running well into the thousands. They can offer ways of making that are inexpensive alternatives to the “Steadi-Cam” of Hollywood, which requires special training and a unique skill set, not to mention expensive hardware.

On the software end, the leveling of the marketplace has meant chips capable of handling the data size and rate necessary for editing any video or audio are easily and affordably available. It was not that long ago that it would have cost $40,000 to $50,000 to purchase dedicated editing hardware.[4] Now, spend a few hundred dollars on software, a thousand more for the camera, and its possible to produce comparable results. It’s possible to do it for nothing if you’re willing to accept only somewhat lower quality.

The availability of affordable, quality equipment does not automatically mean quality media products will result, but when coupled with a maker who has clear intent and craft, the gap in quality production closes, making it possible for non-professionals to produce quality, persuasive media products. For example, an audio recording made with substantial craft is significant because that recording demonstrates intent and care. The audience intuitively understands the craft of these recordings is high by definition, because what is heard accurately reflects what the maker intended be heard.

So, a recording made in a controlled environment such as a booth or studio clearly reflects intent. That’s not a simple task, at least not when you consider what would be required for a terrorist group to use a booth, (or its equivalent), particularly in a conflict environment. At a very minimum they need to have or make a functional sound booth, which requires that they need to know, prior to using the booth, what it is that they want, and its requirements. These are not decisions even sophisticated faculty at the college and university level (certainly not all media production majors) innately understand. Musicians do. The BBC consistently employs quality sound. They know sound and recognize its importance. Consider just the show Dr. Who. The images and effects on that show have barely improved over a period of decades, as other shows have over time employed effects at a level once reserved for theatrical release movies. But the Dr. Who fan base has remained loyal at least in part because the audio has been clean, and well synched.[5]

Again, when it comes to the role of sound in propaganda, we see the importance of developments in technology. A high quality microphone can now be purchased for under two hundred dollars (US) which, again, is a large return on investment, and because quality equipment is available and affordable the quality of recordings can be higher, thus separating the technology from the story. That is, as technology continues to improve, so does the potential quality of product that can be made. Therefore the audience will spend less time examining the craft and more time being immersed in the story and its meaning. As an extension of that, any investment in technology, for example audio equipment, automatically reflects careful planning and thought – amplified by the fact that sound is so often overlooked and misunderstood as an aspect of production.

The technologies available influence jihadist product, and the evolution in these technologies can be seen and heard in the materials being posted today.With choices come decisions, which when made with intent and executed with craft yield a product permitting an audience to immerse more fully into the persuasive message. We are hardly technological determinists, still, it is the case that the content of jihadist propaganda, completely apart from the platforms used to distribute it, has been enormously impacted by changes in technologies used to produce them, and those technologies need to be a part of the conversation about “terrorism and technology” going forward.


[1] The rare exception would include Greg Miller and Souad Mekhennet, “Inside the surreal world of the Islamic State’s propaganda machine,” Washington Post, November 20, 2015. 

[2] We distinguish the technology being used from the methods of production, although there is precious little available about that either. For important exceptions see Asaad Almohammad and Charlie Winter, “From Directorate of Intelligence to Directorate of Everything: The Islamic State’s Emergent Amni-Media Nexus,” Perspectives on Terrorism13, no. 1 (February 2019): 40-52 or Daniel Milton, Pulling Back the Curtain: An Inside Look At the Islamic State’s Media Organization (Combating Terrorism Center at West Point: August, 2018) which includes a number of documents from IS itself and finally Assad Almohammad and Charlie Winter, From Battlefront to Cyberspace: Demystifying the Islamic State’s Propaganda Machine” (United States Military Academy: Combating Terrorism Center, June 2019). But much of the discussion here has to do with the efforts undertaken by IS production regarding security. For example, Almohammad and Winter, From Battlefront to Cyberspace, p. 15: “The Bank was authorized to reject materials that did not meet the Media Judiciary Committee’s minimum production standards. To this effect, it was charged both with omitting operationally sensitive materials and ensuring that the materials satisfy or surpass the least acceptable production quality.” But our interest, of course, would be in the question of what those “acceptable” standards were, who determined them, how they were met and assessed.

[3] They will, of course, influence what the right wing groups will be able to do, but the right wing groups, as near as we can tell, are lagging 15 years behind the jihadist, so the limits of what technology will allow just is not their problem at the moment.

[4] “Jump ahead to today and we’ve taken another decimal point off the cost. In fact with many flavors of DV and with file-based rather than with tape-based cameras, functional NLE systems can be assembled in the low thousands of dollars. To simply, if twenty years the cost of being in the video editing business has gone from $400,000 to $20,000 to $2,000, or one half of one percent of what it used to cost . . . that 1990s facility was SD and 2010’s NLE, with the right storage, is likely capable of glorious high definition.” Nick Griffin, “Media 100 Steps Out with Suite 1.5,” Media 100, n.d.

[5] Kevin Hilton, “Inside the Audio of Dr. Who,” ProSoundNews, November 13, 2018 

Dr. Cori E. Dauber is Professor of Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is also a Research Fellow at the Triangle Institute for Security Studies (TISS). You can follow her on Twitter: @coridauber 

Mark D. Robinson is Director of the Multimedia Labs in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Communication Studies department.

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