Copycat Terrorism: JoM Paper

From: Paul Marsden (
Date: Tue Oct 02 2001 - 18:26:38 BST

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    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
    copycat terrorism.

    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

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