Since capturing Mosul in June 2014, ISIS has maintained control over Iraq’s second largest city. A coalition of Iraqi and Kurdish troops, supported by the United States, France, and Britain, has, however, been challenging its authority. Both conventional news outlets and social media have been active in covering this conflict, receiving criticism from some corners for sensationalizing the suffering of Iraqis.
As Yarno Ritzen reported for Al Jazeera, Mosul is central to ISIS’s continued presence in Iraq. As a result, fighting has been intense and victories hard won. In the last two weeks alone, Iraqi troops have advanced incrementally within the city, facing suicide attacks, improvised drone bombings, snipers, and booby traps from ISIS fighters.
This drawn-out confrontation has created an extreme scarcity of food and water in Mosul, while electricity has become intermittent. In a city with more than one million residents, these circumstances have been disastrous. Tens of thousands of displaced Mosul residents have already fled to nearby refugee camps along the Tigris River.
As the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq, Lisa Grande noted, nearly 50 percent of all casualties in Mosul have been civilians, much higher than the 15-20 percent typical of similar conflicts. In October, the UN warned that the battle could become one of the worst humanitarian crises in history, with consequences far outlasting the battle.
As the BBC reported recently, eastern Mosul may not recover from the current conflict, for at least thirty years. A recent photo series by The Atlantic highlights the brutality, depicting dead and dehumanized bodies and endless rubble. The photo series is one of four published on the news site since the battle began.
Coverage of the Battle for Mosul has also proliferated across other outlets. When the offensive began, independent journalists and major media organizations, like Al Jazeera and the U.K.-based Channel 4 News livestreamed the Battle for Mosul on Facebook and Snapchat. Most of the video footage had been recorded by local Kurdish news stations Rudaw and Kurdistan 24. At the end of January, Frontline, the PBS documentary series, even uploaded a 360° video to its Facebook page, meant to engage viewers in a “visceral” experience.
Real time coverage of armed conflict is certainly not a new phenomenon. It has been happening since the Vietnam War, and went into overdrive with the first Gulf War, which gave birth to the twenty-four-hour news cycle. But access to news has increased even further thanks to social media.
By allowing anyone with a smartphone to become a content creator, livestreaming, in particular, has precipitated a deluge of coverage. The level of interactivity, through likes and comments, combined with the immediacy inherent to the medium also raises ethical questions about the line between reporting and exploitation. User-generated content can have significant effects on desensitization to and fetishization of violence. Because of its nature, social media diminishes the agency of those affected by the battle, in order to enhance the viewer’s excitement. Alexander Lerche, a news producer for Al Jazeera English, has, for example, likened livestreams of the Battle for Mosul to reality television.
While livestreaming might seem like the next innovation in news media, careful consideration must be given to the ways it exploits suffering for the entertainment of viewers.