Grant Will Explore Echoes of Hollywood in ISIS Propaganda

“The ultimate goal really is to understand in a powerful way what inspires individuals to have sympathy for ISIS and other terrorist groups by watching videos.”

By Emily Kramer

Researchers at the University of Chicago have recently discovered that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is using Hollywood movie script formulas to construct recruitment videos. Since the initial discovery, the Department of Defense has given the University of Chicago a $3.4 million grant to support research on ISIS’s filmmaking tactics.

ISIS has released over 150 videos in the past three months that conform to a method of heroic storytelling called “The Hero’s Journey.” Researchers say the videos follow Chris Vogler’s 12-step guide to the method, outlined in his 2007 book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.

“The Hero’s Journey,” seen in movies such as Titanic and Star Wars, first presents the heroes in their everyday lives, followed by a chronicling of the adventures they encounter and the challenges they face. It ends with the hero’s victorious return home.

Dana Rovang, research director with the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) at the University of Chicago, discovered the connection between the ISIS videos and Vogler’s guide for screenwriters after viewing hundreds of videos directed and produced by the terrorist group.

According to Robert Pape, director of CPOST, in one recruitment video, ISIS follows Volger’s method by attempting to depict Andre Poulin, a Canadian Muslim convert known who went by Abu Muslim, as a hero willing to leave the beautiful lands of Canada in order to fight on behalf of ISIS in Syria.

“The discovery is important because, until now, studies have mostly focused on performing mere content analysis of videos,” Pape said. “Instead, we’re unpacking ISIS narratives and that will help our policy makers find more effective ways to counter the group’s message.”

In an interview for ABC 7’s Investigative Team (I-Team), Rovang said that ISIS is teaching itself Western narrative language in its attempts to recruit members. The Pentagon’s grant will fund research specifically aimed at determining which individuals are most susceptible to terrorist group recruitment.

“The ultimate goal really is to understand in a powerful way what inspires individuals to have sympathy for ISIS and other terrorist groups by watching videos,” Pape said in an interview for the I-Team.

With the Pentagon’s grant, researchers will be using fMRIs in order to determine which areas of the brain are activated by the videos, as well as whether those parts of the brain control thoughts or emotions.

David Tolchinsky, a film professor at Northwestern University, said that the terrorist recruitment videos are aimed at evoking emotions and playing with the mindset of the viewers. According to Tolchinsky, the producers of these videos are using various Hollywood techniques to make their movies spark a radical response within viewers; these responses include leaving one’s home, embracing violence, and even embracing death.

“Rather than selling the story of living a small but worthy life, you’re rewarded for taking chances in favor of greatness, glory or for being ‘the chosen one,’ a person who’s willing to make sacrifices,” Tolchinsky said. “For viewers who are living a small life, an ordinary life, but feel they are destined for bigger things, how enticing to see this story, and to think: ‘That could be me. That IS me.’ Even if involves violence or death. And for viewers who feel powerless, how enticing to see a story of underdogs prevailing.”

Researchers at UChicago are hopeful that the information from the work funded by the Pentagon’s grant will allow them to develop better techniques to fight terrorism and the impacts of terrorist recruitment efforts.

“We are continuing with our in-depth examination of ISIS videos,” Pape said. “We’re trying to find out more about what constitutes a ‘culture of martyrdom’: how it comes about and how and why it’s perpetuated. We think the videos are absolutely key to that.”