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The online joke is on Islamic State

5 March 2015
Last updated at 01:19

By Mukul Devichand
Series Producer, BBC Trending

Saturday Night Live’s Islamic State sketch attracted strong criticism online

This week, several Islamic State (IS) parody sketches went viral online. Does this help or hurt the militants?
The theatrical depravity of IS seems designed – quite deliberately – to go viral.
The news media has been accused of cynically doing them a favour even by reporting on their actions.
“Some parts of the media are half in love with their almost picturesque excessiveness, eagerly pouncing on every “shock” video, rapidly launching them out into the social media world confident that they’ll harvest ever-bigger viewer numbers,” wrote Amnesty International’s Neil Durkin on their blog back in December.
“Atrocity exhibitions as clickbait.”
Nowadays, the use of IS imagery is carefully limited by many news sites.
But no one seems to have told the comedians.
This week, at opposite ends of the globe, several IS video parodies went viral.
In the US, a sketch by Saturday Night Live (in which Dakota Johnson, star of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie, says “it’s only Isis, Dad,” before driving off with militants) got 1.6 million views.
It stirred up a pointed backlash on Twitter.
In Egypt, several ordinary internet users posted IS humour videos.
Most striking was a Facebook video posted by Ahmed Shehata, a groom who says he wanted to “surprise the bride and guests with something new”.
He asked his friends to dress as IS militants and dance in a cage (many online commented that his bride, pictured, seemed nonplussed).

His wedding video has now been seen by hundreds of thousands.
“I thought it will be okay to make fun of them,” he told the BBC.
“I wanted… to tell the families of the victims that the victims are the winners and not IS.”
There have been several other video parodies this week in Egypt, including the three young women who have had 150,000 views since Friday for their Facebook belly dancing video, dressed as IS executioners and a victim in a jumpsuit.

Women belly dancing dressed as militants were a hit on Facebook in Egypt

The Egyptian response to these videos echoes the American backlash: many are calling them “stupid,” insensitive to the families of recent Egyptian victims of IS, and worried that all they do is glorify the violent militants.
In other words, the “atrocity exhibitions as clickbait” argument again.
The criticism runs as follows: perpetuating an image of IS fighters as fools or jokers is a way of gaining easy laughs and clicks, but it risks desensitising the public to a much more grim reality.
“They’re now automatically being treated as beyond-the-pale – and faintly amusing – modern folk devils,” says the Amnesty blog.
“Nothing is beyond jokes and parody,” the blog’s author Neil Durkin told BBC Trending, but he felt the wedding video with IS fighters was “ill matched to its subject.
“It’s hard to successfully satirise some of the darkest things IS are doing.
“Can you really imagine a comedy on Pol Pot and the killing fields? Not really.”
These arguments have always raged when it comes to comedians parodying terrorists.
“Freedom to mock is our greatest weapon,” is the familiar response, and indeed this is what Saturday Night Live’s Taran Killam tweeted in response to their sketch’s critics in the US.
In the Arab region, too, there’s a proud tradition of satire and mockery, but the arguments defending the need to joke about IS there seem much more raw.
“What is terrorism but a psychological war in the first place?” says Mona El-Ashry, an outspoken Egyptian pharmacist with a big Twitter following.
She was vocal in her defence of these videos online and told BBC Trending: “The Egyptian message was, hey IS, you want to terrorise us and plant fear in our hearts?
“We’ll degrade you, demean you, and make fun of you in every possible way”.
Do terrorists ever listen to satirical messages like this?
The final twist: on Tuesday, according to BBC Monitoring, IS supporters posted their own satirical response video, one of the group’s first.
It was meant to counter mocking Egyptian tweets about an IS recruit dying.
The video showed him alive, and appeared to use language that was intended to be sarcastic and mocking – but as some of the comments underneath pointed out, there seemed to be nothing very funny about it.
Additional reporting by India Rakusen and Sherine Abdel Monaim
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