Terrorists or Copycats? What's The Difference?

How detailed coverage of attacks can lead to contagion.

Posted May 03, 2018

By Sue Kolod, Ph.D.

shutterstock/Lenscap Photography
Source: shutterstock/Lenscap Photography

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 many recent attacks (Toronto, Parkland, New York City, Nice, Orlando, Munich) were neither freedom fighters nor terrorists, but rather individuals with personal grievances struggling somewhere between rage, suicide, and homicide. While their actions cause terror, their motivations might be more reflective of a maladjusted internal state rather than reflective of an allegiance to a political cause. In other words, it’s possible for terrorism to be inspired by individual anger, resentment, and glory-seeking and to be triggered by media coverage of similar events rather than by ideology or connection to organizations. It’s complicated!

The Copycat Effect

Self-destruction can be contagious. Research demonstrates 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 weight 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 was applied to the terrorist attacks in Orlando, Nice, and Munich.  The New York Times, in response to the spate of mass killings in 2016, 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). Similarly, a recent spate of mass killings has the mark of contagion:

--Alek Minassian, who plowed a van into pedestrians on a crowded street in Toronto had been researching the Isla Vista killings from 2014 in which Elliot Roger, a celibate misogynist and alleged member of the Incel Rebellion, killed 4 people and injured 14.

--Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter, researched and attempted to replicate the Columbine mass shooting.

--Sayfull Saipoz who drove a Home Depot van into pedestrians in New York City was trying to replicate the Nice attacks that killed 86 and injured 456. 

Most had histories of hatred towards women, domestic violence, petty crime, alienation, a series of life disappointments, or obsession with internet violence. Unlike the perpetrators of 9/11 or the Paris and Brussels attacks, none of them had known ties to terrorist organizations.  However, they were alienated and deeply troubled young men. 

The Label of "Terrorist Attack" may exacerbate the contagion

NATO defines terrorism as “the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence against individuals or property in an attempt to coerce or intimidate governments or societies to achieve political, religious or ideological objectives". Are these recent mass killings, 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.

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.

Dr. 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, it can inspire an alienated young man to strive 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.

Both Dr. Gould and my colleague Wylie Tene, Director of Public Affairs of the American Psychoanalytic Association, worked on guidelines for journalists to reduce the likelihood that media coverage will lead to the copycat effect. Following these recommendations when reporting on mass killings can help 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.

About the Author: Susan Kolod, Ph.D., is Chair of the Committee on Public Information and editor of the blog Psychoanalysis Unplugged at the American Psychoanalytic Association. She is supervising and training analyst, faculty, and co-editor of the blog Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action at the William Alanson White Institute. Dr. Kolod has a private practice in Manhattan and Brooklyn.