Detailed coverage of attacks can lead to contagion
By Sue Kolod, Ph.D.
Yasser Arafat, the former Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, famously stated in his 1974 speech before the United Nations that, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
But there is reason to suspect that the killers in the recent Orlando, Nice and Munich attacks were neither freedom fighters nor terrorists at all, but individuals with personal grievances struggling somewhere between rage, suicide and homicide.
The “Copycat” Effect
Self-destruction can be contagious. Research demonstrate the “copycat effect” of highly publicized acts of suicide. The news coverage of Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962 was extensive and sensational. According to one study, the suicide rate after her death in the United States jumped by 12 percent relative to the same months in the previous year. People at risk of suicide are vulnerable. The extensive and sensational publicity around the suicide of a celebrity can add coins to the scale, tipping at-risk individuals toward identification and imitation.
A similar “copycat effect” has been found after non-ideological mass shootings. A study in Germany of mass shootings, i.e., attacks in which an individual goes on a rampage killing people without any apparent motive, found that such attacks do not occur randomly over time. One attack is frequently followed by others within a matter of weeks. Research suggests that many US mass shootings, such as the one at Virginia Tech, were inspired by Columbine. Shooters who have survived their attacks have claimed they wanted to surpass the attacks in the Colorado suburb. This has been called the “Columbine Effect“.
The “copycat” or contagion phenomenon most recently has been applied to the “terrorist” attacks in Orlando, Nice and Munich. The New York Times, in response to the spate of mass killings, questioned whether these killings by self-professed “terrorists” should be properly labeled as “terrorism” or attributed to the contagion effect. (Terrorist or Disturbed Loner? July 24, 2016) and (Mass Killings May Have Created Contagion, Feeding on Itself, July 26, 2016).
The Label of “Terrorist Attack” may exacerbate the contagion
Are these shootings, in fact “terrorist attacks” or are they more accurately described as the acts of angry, disturbed young men seeking power, fame and a sense of identity? Perhaps, such mass killings are more a problem of public health than of the “War on Terror.”
If so, the solutions are complex: finding ways to identify persons at risk of acting out such suicidal terrorist fantasies; finding ways to encourage such persons into treatment; finding ways to limit easy access to the motivating ideologies; and finding ways to limit easy access to means of mass destruction, such as assault weapons and explosives.
Omar Manteen (Orlando), Mohammed Bouhlele (Nice) and, most recently, Ali Sonboly, the Munich shooter, all had histories of either domestic violence, petty crime, alienation, or a series of life disappointments. Unlike the perpetrators of 9/11 or the Paris and Brussels attacks, none of these men had direct ties to a global terrorist organization. They were merely alienated and troubled young men.
ISIS, of course, is happy to claim responsibility.
Madelyn Gould, professor of epidemiology and psychiatry at Columbia, worries, “Those of us in this field, it’s the first thing we think about when we read accounts of these recent mass murders: The detailed coverage of terrorist attacks may be giving people who are vulnerable or thinking along these line ideas about what to do and how to do it.”
Dr. Salman Akhtar, psychoanalyst, has written extensively about terrorism, its causes and ways to address it. “When you sit and talk with smart people, you get smarter, when you swim with good swimmers, you become a better swimmer. The same is true in the opposite direction; if you interact with/emulate people who engage in anti-social behavior, unacceptable behavior gradually becomes acceptable.”
When an attack is linked to a powerful threat such as ISIS it can inspire an alienated young man to “achieve” even greater bloodshed and carnage. For someone who is unmoored, this can create a sense of belonging and identity. The shooter becomes an overnight celebrity. And by labeling these massacres as “terrorist attacks” we may be exacerbating the copycat effect.
The copycat effect with mass killings, as with suicide, depends on the prominence of the coverage, the ways in which the details of the shooting are reported and the portrayals of people affected by the attacks. Young men who are struggling with thoughts of suicide and homicide, may use these reports as a guide or to feed their own fantasies of glory.
Both Dr. Gould and our own Wylie Tene, Director of Public Affairs of the American Psychoanalytic Association, have been working on guidelines for journalists to reduce the likelihood that media coverage will lead to the “copycat effect”. These guidelines will be similar to those already established for limiting suicide contagion: www.reportingonsuicide.org
It is hoped that following these guidelines when reporting on mass shootings will diminish and limit the “copycat phenomenon”. When writing about these events, remember that words matter. Before you label the next mass shooting a terrorist attack, think about the potential, yet inadvertent, consequences.
Susan Kolod, Ph.D. is the Chair of the Committee on Public Education of the American Psychoanalytic Association. She is a supervising and training analyst and co-editor of the blog, Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action at the William Alanson White Institute. Dr. Kolod was a speaker at the conference, Violence, Terror and Terrorism Today, May 12, 2016 sponsored by the International Forum of Psychoanalysis.