Asa Don Brown Ph.D.

Towards Recovery

Desensitization of Terrorism

The influence of the media and social media

Posted May 30, 2017

Dr. Asa Don Brown
Source: Dr. Asa Don Brown

As a global community, we are becoming more and more desensitized by the countless number of news reports related to terrorism.  The constant bombardment of the 24 hour news cycle, the internet, and the socialization of the global community has brought the acts of terrorism closer to home.  These cowardly acts of terrorism are causing our minds, bodies, perceptions and worldviews to become desensitized to these persistent images and messages of terror.  Unfortunately, the endless cycle of information is feeding our lust for negativity and it is serving to cause more harm than good.  Moreover, the terrorist themselves are gaining ground by the constant bombardment of terrorism in the media.  

We are in a “...time when terrorist attacks and thwarted plots regularly dominate the news headlines, when long queues at airport security checks have become all-too-common, and when once innocuous items (drinks, shoes, backpacks) can become the means of deadly attacks, it is clear that the threat of terrorism hangs over us as never before.” (Waxman, 2011)  As a society, the ever looming presence of terrorism is darkening our perceptions and worldviews.  It is normalizing the egregious acts of terrorism and causing the current generation to be nonchalant.  The indifference is having a numbing effect upon our society and will have a profound effect upon generations to come.  

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPLICATIONS

While the terrorist may not be winning a physical fight on the ground; the perception that they are instilling within our society is a universal fear of the unknown, the what if’s, and the when.  Terrorism is a physical and a psychological war, but it is the psychological war that leaves an  unmistakable impression upon the hearts and minds of a society.  “Peoples’ fear of terrorism is both rational and irrational; rational in that there is an ever-present threat of a terrorist attack being repeated, but irrational in the probability assigned to that potential event.” (Waxman, 2011) Nevertheless, the regular acts of terrorism increases the odds and the probability of being a direct or an indirect victim of a terrorist attack.  Moreover, while there may not be a personal encounter with a terrorist attack, it is the psychological implications that is having a vicarious effect upon our global community.  

Dr. Daniel Antonius director of forensic psychiatry at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in Buffalo, New York stated that "fear is the primary psychological weapon underlying acts of terrorism... It is this fear, or the anticipation of future acts of terror, that can have serious effects on our behavior and minds." (LaMotte, 2016) Terrorists are adapting a new strategy of using the media to create an image of constant danger and threat.  Terrorists are winning the psychophysiological battle by creating a skewed image and perception that terrorism is a never-ending activity.  As a society, we may be  fed truths or half-truths by the media, but our mind is now engage to actively be on high alert for danger.  

NOT ALL THREATS ARE CREDIBLE

Reflect back on the year 1999.  In December 1999, there was an unsettling global fear that computers would not know what to do with the year 2000.  The fear was perpetuated by media hype and technological uncertainty; it was believed that computers “...might break down when the date switched from 99 to 00, since the numeric progression convention, programmed to store data using only the last two digits of any given year, wouldn’t recognize the logic of a century change.” (Long, 2009) While the fears of the unknown were based on sound concern, the media and the technological community only perpetuated the fears causing a time of undue panic.  During that time, people were stalk piling water, supplies, and weapons.  Reflectively, when there is a heightened sense of concern due to terrorism; society sees a similar media frenzy and relative global concern.  

While the concern with terrorism is undoubtedly more troubling than a computer system failure; the reality is, the media only feeds the uncertainties and insecurities within our society.  Naturally, we as individuals are also responsible for consuming the constant messages.  

While terrorism may not be winning the physical war, terrorists have made great strides towards winning the psychological battle.  “According to Pew’s latest figures, 40 percent of Americans now believe the country is more vulnerable to terrorism than it was in 2001, the highest ever.” (McGill, 2016)  As a society, we must begin reversing the messages being received by the media.  Terrorist are not winning the war. They are not going to invade every home, school, and business.  Certainly, there will be acts of terrorism, but terrorists will continue to win the perceptional battle until we reverse the messages being communicated.  

Even our own government, has unintentionally created a message that is desensitizing our society.  “We're told to 'see something, say something,' so now people scan the environment and look for things that don't seem right... Over time, the chronic experience of fear can morph into serious psychological distress that eventually may develop into a mental disorder." (LaMotte, 2016)  I am not blaming our government, nor am I stating that there should not be messages of attentiveness, but it is like the parent that constantly ridicules alcohol and substances.  The parent may be unintentionally planting a seed of interest rather than creating a wall of protection for his or her child.  

The haunting of graphic images, messages, and videos 

“Journalists create multimedia stories that focus on videos, photos and graphic accounts from victims and witnesses. The experts give interviews, and the latest tools of immediacy are put to use. After the deadly terror attack in Nice, France, The Times invited grief counselors to be interviewed on Facebook Live. Within days, attention had turned to a shooting in Baton Rouge that left three law enforcement officers dead.” (Rogers, 2016)  Not only has the media conditioned us to shift our attention to the next horrific scene of terror, but we tend to leave the last terror attack fading into the background.  Please understand that I am not questioning the journalistic integrity of The Times Magazine, nor am I questioning the intent of the grief counselors providing a service on Facebook Live; rather I am stating that we are becoming complacent and desensitized with the information that we are receiving.  

Asa Don Brown
Source: Asa Don Brown

It is the 24 hour news cycle and social media that have created a constant need for consumption.  The constant lust for more and more information is creating a society of information addicts.  The information and messages are rarely positive and they are creating this gloomy perspective of our global community.  

TURNING THE TIDE OF INFORMATION 

We must begin turning the tide of information.  While terrorism has a profound effect upon a society from a physical, monetary, and economic perspective; it is the psychological perspective that numbs and desensitizes a society.  Thus, the terrorists have made great strides towards winning the battle of the mind.  

The good news is, we can make change within our society.  Terrorism does not need to dominate our constant news cycle nor our social media accounts.  Moreover, turning the tide of information does not deny that events occur, rather that we will no longer unintentionally promote the agendas of these terrorists. “Designating times to plug into the news — checking Twitter in the morning over coffee, but not listening to the radio while driving your kids to school, for instance — can help you manage anxiety if you are feeling stressed.” (Rogers, 2016) The bombardment of this continuous news cycle can have a dire effect upon our psychological wellbeing.  “The constant stream of news on social media can also be traumatic. A team of researchers at the University of Bradford in England told a British psychology conference last year that exposure to violent imagery on social media can cause symptoms that are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, defined as a persistent emotional reaction to a traumatic event that severely impairs one’s life.” (Rogers, 2016) Thus, it is important that we balance our time, energy and focus.  We need to be conscious of the most vulnerable and developing minds.  Consider who is in your vehicle or your living room before turning on the news.  Moreover, we need to consider the ramifications of explaining such news events to our children and to always reassure them of their personal safety.  

Naturally, we are drawn out of concern for victims of terrorist attacks, and selfishly, out of concern for our own homeland and specifically the need to protect our own families.  We should be good stewards of our time and our energy.  Let’s no longer allow the terrorists to win the battle of the mind and the heart.  “From a psychological or a brain perspective, something very interesting happens,’ said Horgan, the author of ‘The Psychology of Terrorism.’ ‘We actually return to normal pretty quickly.’” (LaMottte, 2016)  Terrorism does not have to be the leading story in our minds.  Even if, there is an egregious attack; we must learn to monitor the amount of information that we are consuming and that we are sharing with others.  As society, we are on information overload and the information is dire indeed.  We must learn to balance our time with the information that we are consuming and the energy with which we provide that information.  

We are not helpless victims, rather we are powerful and we will not be defeated by these cowardly acts of terrorism.   

References

LaMotte, S. (2016, July 15) The psychology and neuroscience of terrorism.  CNN.  Retrieved from:  http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/25/health/brain-and-terrorist-attack/

Long, T. (2009, December 12) Dec. 31, 1999: Horror or hype? Y2K arrives and world trembles. Wired. Retrieved from: https://www.wired.com/2009/12/1231-y2k/

Rogers, K (2016, July 15) What is a constant cycle of violent news doing to us? The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/16/health/what-is-a-constant-cycle-of-violent-news-doing-to-us.html?_r=0

Waxman, D. (2011) Living with terror, Not living in terror: The impact of chronic terrorism on Israeli society.  Retrieved from http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/living-with-terror/html Terrorism Research Initiative  Vol. 5, No. 5-6

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