Received: by alpheratz.cpm.aca.mmu.ac.uk id SAA25568 (8.6.9/5.3[ref email@example.com] for cpm.aca.mmu.ac.uk from firstname.lastname@example.org); Tue, 2 Oct 2001 18:31:29 +0100 X-Originating-IP: [220.127.116.11] From: "Paul Marsden" <email@example.com> To: <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: Copycat Terrorism: JoM Paper Date: Tue, 2 Oct 2001 18:26:38 +0100 Content-Type: text/plain; charset="iso-8859-1" Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit X-Priority: 3 X-MSMail-Priority: Normal X-Mailer: Microsoft Outlook Express 6.00.2505.0000 X-MimeOLE: Produced By Microsoft MimeOLE V6.00.2505.0000 Message-ID: <LAW2-OE35ptKQbBhgGn00005cb9@hotmail.com> X-OriginalArrivalTime: 02 Oct 2001 17:26:22.0404 (UTC) FILETIME=[5B07D840:01C14B67] Sender: email@example.com Precedence: bulk Reply-To: firstname.lastname@example.org
A short comment appears in the Journal of Memetics (copy below) warning of
the risk of copycat terrorism following the recent terrorist attacks in New
York and Washington. It makes the controversial point that the political
and media reaction to the attacks has massively exacerbated the risk of
Francis (Heylighen) has also forwarded me an interesting link to another
paper by Robert T. Holden from Indiana University who has produced archival
correlational evidence for the contagious spread of aircraft hijacks
Copycat Terrorism: Fanning the Fire - By Paul Marsden -
The political and media reaction to the recent terrorist attacks in the US
could trigger a spate of copycat terrorism. This would be the warning from
the body of research known as contagion psychology, the science of copycat
phenomena ranging from infectious yawning and laughter, through consumer
fads, fashions, and crazes, to the more serious contagions of eating
disorders, suicide, hysteria, violence, and even murder (Marsden 2000a).
Why should we expect our reaction to the recent disaster to trigger copycat
terrorism? Firstly, there is a chilling precedent. Twenty tears of US data
show that airplane crashes, some thought to be suicides involving the
deliberate killing of others, rise systematically and unexpectedly following
media publicity of other of these 'murder-suicide' stories (Phillips 1980).
More worryingly, the amount of media coverage devoted to these events, by
television networks and newspapers, correlates positively with the rise in
subsequent `copycat' events. This is darkly consistent with the substantial
body of evidence for suicide contagion - the idea that suicides beget
suicide (Marsden 2000b).
Secondly, copycat terrorism makes compelling sense when we understand the
simple but deadly psychology of contagion. A phenomenon of `disinhibition'
can occur when suicidal or murderous thoughts - inhibited by conscience,
uncertainty or fear - are exposed to what is perceived as the positive
consequences of suicide or murder. When this happens, the mental conflict
between urges and inhibitions may be resolved, resulting in a suicidal and
possibly murderous mind being made up. Thought is free to become deadly
action. With a perverse irony, the global attention and blanket media
coverage accorded the U.S. terrorist attacks may actually help make up some
desperate minds and legitimise future murder-suicides.
So how can the risk of copycat terrorism involving murder-suicides be
reduced? Blanket censorship is obviously not a realistic option in a free
and democratic society. However, our reaction to such events could be
usefully informed by the practical and realistic recommendations of the US
CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and similar organisations
on how to contain and reduce the risk of contagion involving suicide (CDC
- Avoid presenting the event as an accomplishment; for example, do not use
the term 'successful'
- Avoid repetitious or excessive reporting of the event
- Avoid sensationalising the event
- Avoid `how-to' descriptions of the event
- Avoid portraying the event as painless for those responsible
- Avoid presenting simplistic explanations for the event
- Avoid glorifying the event or those responsible for it
- Avoid giving a positive rationale for those responsible for the event
A quick glance at these recommendations reveals that each and everyone has
been violated by politicians and media alike in recent days: Repetitious and
sensationalised accounts of an event portrayed as horribly effective in aim
and simple in explanation. As a consequence of our own reactions, borne
perhaps of a voyeuristic and morbid fascination for disaster, we may have
increased the likelihood of copycat terrorism. The equally sensationalist
accounts of a possible war may only serve to exacerbate this risk. Of
course, there is an urgent need to discuss how we tackle terrorism in a
world where technology and connectivity allows tiny minorities massive
leverage, but perhaps it is now time for a qualitative shift away from the
sensationalist coverage of the `what', `where', `when' and `who', and
towards a more informed discussion of the `why'. Only by understanding the
situation that led to the attacks can we hope to move towards an informed
solution that may help prevent them from occurring again.
CDC (1994) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. `Suicide Contagion
and the Reporting of Suicide: Recommendations form a National Workshop'.
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Review, 43, (RR-6).
Marsden, P. (2000a) `Mental epidemics' New Scientist, 2237, 46-47.
Marsden, P. (2000b) The Werther Effect: Suicide Contagion - A Critical
Evaluation, Theoretical Reconceptualisation and Empirical Investigation
Doctoral Thesis - University of Sussex University of Sussex. Available at
Phillips, D. P., (1980). `Airplane accidents, murder, and the mass media:
Towards a theory of imitation and suggestion'. Social Forces, 58(4),
Dr Paul Marsden
tel: +44 (0) 777 95 77 248
This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Tue Oct 02 2001 - 18:37:05 BST