Open Source Defense

What is going on with mass shootings? Lessons from past solved problems.

Kareem Shaya
August 04, 2019   |   18 minute read

This essay has been in my head for a long time. But after hearing about the mass shooting yesterday in Texas and then waking up to news of another just over 12 hours later in Ohio — all a week after a similar attack in California — today is a sadly apt day to write it down.

The tricky part is that discussions about this stuff almost always fail. Their stable equilibrium is usually one of a handful of failure modes that we all know (and which are mostly various shapes of “look, it’s the outgroup — get ’em!”).

I wrote last year about the culture war incentive structure around this, why the two sides talk past each other, and why they’re at an impasse without even realizing it.

A common pitfall here is to jump right to solutions without first agreeing on the problem. So, for example, the gun rights crowd will talk about:

And how cosmetic rifle bans are silly and authoritarian, etc etc etc. We all know the discussion. Hell, Open Source Defense is a gun rights group, we say this too.

Then the gun control crowd hits back with a Voxsplainer, the gut-wrenching emotional horror of these events, the sense of helplessness, and all the rest. And it rolls up into a feeling: “There’s only so much time in the day, and I don’t know all the details about this stuff. I just know that we have to do something.”

It’s tempting to dismiss that as the politician’s syllogism: we must do something, this is something, therefore we must do this.

But this discussion has too much momentum to ignore. Either you engage it or it is going to run you over. And more importantly, there’s a good, insightful question here! Both sides are too busy shouting at each other about gun bans to step back and engage the question: wait, what is going on with mass shootings?

So. Let’s engage it.

The Vienna subway suicides

After 9 years of construction and testing (and a couple decades of on-again, off-again planning), Vienna’s subway, the U-Bahn, opened for business on February 25, 1978. They continued to build it out over the next few years, and finished the entire initial network of tracks and stations in 1982.

By the mid-’80s, those tracks unfortunately became a locally well-known tool to kill oneself. Specifically, from The BMJ:

From 1983 to 1986 a sharp increase in the number of subway suicides in Vienna was linked to a dramatic increase in their coverage in the media. In 1987 the Austrian Association for Suicide Prevention launched a media campaign to change the amount and the nature of press coverage of subway suicide. After June 1987 the Austrian press either did not report the subway suicides at all or covered them in short reports in the inside pages.

During the years of sensational news coverage there were up to nine subway suicides per six months. After the sensational coverage ceased, there were between one and four subway suicides per six month interval.

A study in the Archives of Suicide Research found:

After the implementation of the subway system in Vienna in 1978, it became increasingly acceptable as means to commit suicide, with the suicide rates showing a sharp increase. This and the fact that the mass-media reported about these events in a very dramatic way, lead to the formation of a study-group of the Austrian Association for Suicide Prevention (ÖVSKK), which developed media guidelines and launched a media campaign in mid-1987. Subsequently, the media reports changed markedly and the number of subway-suicides and -attempts dropped more than 80% from the first to the second half of 1987, remaining at a rather low level since. Conclusions regarding the possible reduction of imitative suicidal behaviour by influencing mass-media-reports are drawn. Experiences from the media campaign are presented, as well as considerations about further research.

The authorities in San Francisco have had similar experience with the Golden Gate Bridge, which led them to deliberately stop publicizing suicides there.

Copycat suicides are so well-studied that the phenomenon has been named — “the Werther effect” — after a Goethe character who’s said to have inspired a spate of copycat suicides in the late 1700s. Modern studies suggest that celebrity suicides can have the same effect today: “Compared to the number of suicides as predicted by the model, [Robin Williams’] death was associated with a 12.8% increase in suicides in August and September 2014 and a 25.5% increase in suicides attributable to suffocation during those months.”

Today, most media organizations opt-in to suicide coverage guidelines drafted and promoted by major mental health organizations. An excerpt from the National Alliance on Mental Illness:

Inform, Don’t Sensationalize

– Don’t include suicide in the headline. For example, “Kate Spade Dead at 55.”

– Don’t use images of the location or method of death, grieving loved ones, memorials or funerals; instead use school, work or family photos.

– If there was a note from the deceased, do not detail what the note contained or refer to it as a “suicide note.” 

Choose Your Words Carefully

– When describing research or studies on suicide, use words like “increase” or “rise” rather than “epidemic” or “skyrocketing.”

– Do not refer to suicide as “successful,” “unsuccessful” or a “failed attempt.” Do not use the term “committed suicide.” Instead use “died by suicide,” “completed suicide,” “killed him/herself,” or “ended his/her life.”

– Do not describe a suicide as “inexplicable” or “without warning.”

The research on copycat suicides is deep and extraordinarily compelling. Let’s expand this a bit. Killing oneself provably spreads as a social contagion, with the media as one of its most efficient vectors. How about killing other people?

The rise and fall of the ISIS meme

Chatting with my OSD colleagues this morning, I shared a gut feeling after hearing about the second mass shooting yesterday: “This feels like the wave of ISIS attacks that happened in Europe a few years ago. There’s such a performative/contagious aspect to them.”

Then I decided to check that gut feeling against the actual data. (Spreadsheet here.) What did the rise and fall of those lone wolf ISIS attacks look like empirically? I included only the Americas, Europe, and Australia in the chart below — the vast majority of victims died in attacks in Middle Eastern countries, but the scope of this inquiry is to see how a meme (in the selfish gene sense) translates into real world violence. In other words, how the ISIS meme translated into violence in countries where ISIS could support attacks largely only through ideas, not materiel.

ISIS attacks in the Americas, Europe, and Australia

The chart almost perfectly tracks the rise and fall of ISIS’s territorial holdings, on a trailing 6-12 months basis.

But why should that be? Very few of these attackers received material support from ISIS, and in fact for many of them, the only sense in which they were ISIS attacks at all is that the attacker pledged allegiance to the group. So this graph could mostly be titled, “Loners who rent a truck or get a gun or make a bomb, shout something about ISIS, and then kill people: 2014-2019.” People are no less able to do that in 2019 than they were in 2015, or 2005 or 1995 for that matter. In most cases, ISIS’s contribution was just the awareness that this is a thing that one can do. And there’s no reason that would have changed from 2014 to 2019. The internet still exists, people still post pretty much whatever they want, and information spreads anarchically.

Actually, though, I glossed over an important nuance: “ISIS’s contribution was just the awareness that this is a thing that one can do.” I think that may be a lot more powerful than we think. The declaration that hey, this is a thing. If you are part of this, you are part of something.

Contrary to popular belief, the people who commit mass murder aren’t necessarily mentally ill, at least not in the sense of having a diagnosable condition. Some do, but most don’t. So that’s not the common thread.

What is a common thread is that they are almost all frustrated losers. The anguished virgin. The disgruntled husband who explodes and kills the extended family. The racist killing the outgroup that he feels is threatening his ingroup. The religious zealot doing the same. And, for that matter, the impoverished high schooler who kills a classmate after school over some trivial slight, or the husband who kills his wife — both of which, awfully, happen hundreds of times more often than mass shootings.

The shape changes but the mass stays constant: a hopeless loser who feels like he or his group are losing, thinks he spots who’s to blame, and decides he’s going to show everyone that damn it, he’s not the loser that you (and, subconsciously, he) think he is.

This mental model does a lot better at explaining the decline in ISIS-inspired attacks. Roughly nothing has changed in terms of people’s ability to carry out such attacks. So what must have changed is their desire. Now that ISIS isn’t on the upswing, nobody wants to join a losing team.

“Joining” them no longer gives people “See, I’m not a loser” validation. Because now, to join them is by definition to be a loser.

There’s a fascinating history around how the KKK was embarrassed nearly out of existence in the mid 20th century. A PR campaign, via Superman comics, cast the KKK’s secrets and rituals as pathetic jokes, which helped turn membership in the group from “I’m part of a thing” to “I’m a loser that people will make fun of”. (Saw this in an interesting tweet from Jane Coaston, who elaborates on it a bit.)

To circle back to ISIS, there’s some more empirical info on this loserdom-as-homicidogenesis idea. A few years ago, the Danish city of Aarhus had a problem: young Muslims were going to Syria to join ISIS. Starting in 2012, 34 of them to be exact. From a city smaller than Tampa.

NPR did a story about how Aarhus solved the problem. The local police put together a program to integrate themselves into the Muslim community to identify at-risk youths, and to recruit community members as ambassadors. They went deep on identifying root causes of marginalization, and on using those trusted ambassadors as the base of a support system for marginalized people — for people who felt like losers. And they got results. Before the program started, 34 people from Aarhus flew off to join ISIS. After the program, that went down to just 1.

Bringing it home

So how do we apply this to mass murder? And why are mass shootings so much more identifiably “a thing” than mass murder in general? A mass murderer burned 35 people to death in Japan two weeks ago, and it was out of the news within a couple days.

I wrote a little while ago about why mass shootings stick in our heads (“Why people worry more about mass shootings than car accidents: lessons from the Lebanese Civil War”). That article also explains why mass shootings get so much more coverage than other murders (which are ~280 times more common).

But it didn’t address why the idea sticks in a would-be shooter’s head. For that, we turn to Malcolm Gladwell.

Gladwell wrote an essay on “thresholds”, the idea that (using riots as an example) each person violating a norm publicly makes it easier for the next person to do the same. Both by laying out a specific vision of how to do it, and by demonstrating “hey, it’s a thing”.

We misleadingly use the word “copycat” to describe contagious behavior — implying that new participants in an epidemic act in a manner identical to the source of their infection. But rioters are not homogeneous. If a riot evolves as it spreads, starting with the hotheaded rock thrower and ending with the upstanding citizen, then rioters are a profoundly heterogeneous group.

Finally, Granovetter’s model suggests that riots are sometimes more than spontaneous outbursts. If they evolve, it means they have depth and length and a history. Granovetter thought that the threshold hypothesis could be used to describe everything from elections to strikes, and even matters as prosaic as how people decide it’s time to leave a party. He was writing in 1978, long before teen-age boys made a habit of wandering through their high schools with assault rifles. But what if the way to explain the school-shooting epidemic is to go back and use the Granovetterian model — to think of it as a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before?

Gladwell identifies Columbine as a turning point in the slow-motion riot of mass shootings. He went into this in a 10-minute talk on the same subject as his essay:

What [Columbine killers’ names] are doing is laying out a script so precise that it makes it possible for kids with really really high thresholds to join in …. They’re making this particular “riot” more accessible.

[Name of a thwarted school shooter] is not a psychopath. He’s a nerd. And 40 years ago he’d be playing with his chemistry set in the basement and dreaming of being an astronaut. Because that was the available cultural narrative of that moment…. Now he’s dreaming of blowing up schools. He did not come up with that himself. He got it from the society of which he’s a part, and we’re responsible for that.

And indeed, there’s a large-and-growing amount of empirical data about this phenomenon. That the (extremely understandable) hysteria about mass shootings is tragically self-reinforcing. And that the lurid details the media perseverates on are providing a specific template that draws in lower-threshold murderers in the future.

When people ruefully tweet things about AR-15s or tactical clothing or “this is America”, they unwittingly write drafts of a script that gives low-threshold murderers something to be part of, all the way down to costume details. So it’s not just that this meme is contagious. It’s that we have to make it less of a thing. And the hard part is doing that while still finding ways to talk about it.

Some data on this:

Researchers at Arizona State University analyzed news reports of gun-related incidents from 1997 to 2013. They hypothesized that the rampages did not occur randomly over time but instead were clustered in patterns. The investigators applied a mathematical model and found that shootings that resulted in at least four deaths launched a period of contagion, marked by a heightened likelihood of more bloodshed, lasting an average of 13 days. Roughly 20 to 30 percent of all such violence took place in these windows.

“Mass Shootings are Contagious”, Scientific American

Findings indicate that the mass killers received approximately $75 million in media coverage value, and that for extended periods following their attacks they received more coverage than professional athletes and only slightly less than television and film stars. In addition, during their attack months, some mass killers received more highly valued coverage than some of the most famous American celebrities, including Kim Kardashian, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, and Jennifer Aniston. Finally, most mass killers received more coverage from newspapers and broadcast/cable news than the public interest they generated through online searches and Twitter seems to warrant. Unfortunately, this media attention constitutes free advertising for mass killers that may increase the likelihood of copycats.

“Do the media unintentionally make mass killers into celebrities? An assessment of free advertising and earned media value”, a study by criminology professor Adam Lankford

If the mass media and social media enthusiasts make a pact to no longer share, reproduce, or re-tweet the names, faces, detailed histories, or long-winded statements of killers, we could see a dramatic reduction in mass shootings in the span of one to two years. Even conservatively, if the calculations of contagion modelers are correct, we should see at least a one third reduction in shootings if the contagion is removed. Given the profile of mass shooters, we believe levels of mass murder could return to a pre-1970s rate, where it becomes a truly aberrant event that although not eradicated, is no longer a common option that goes through the mind of every bullied, depressed, isolated, somewhat narcissistic man.

“Mass Shootings and the Media Contagion Effect”, research paper by psychology professor Jennifer Johnston and her student Andrew Joy

So we’re left with a question. This stuff is important to talk about, but how do we talk about it while actively making it less of a thing — actively dismantling this script that has developed.

Nobody knows the full answer yet, because it’s really one version of a much bigger question: how do memes spread, period? The unsettling-but-undeniable nature of mass communication is that the process by which a viral hit song or fashion trend spreads is the same process by which ISIS or mass shootings spread. So what do you do about that?

Well, there are a couple places to start. When ISIS first came on the scene, the media ran their execution videos as headline news. We interrupt this broadcast to show you the apostates being executed live on CNN in 1080p. After a few months of that, the media realized they were getting played, and they put a largely successful voluntary blackout on those kinds of videos.

Similarly, a number of outlets (the New York Times, Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN, and others) have become much more judicious about publishing personal details of mass shooters. Professor Adam Lankford has published guidelines for media coverage. The group No Notoriety is doing good work to spread this idea.

But there’s a long way to go. CNN literally maintains a mass shooter scoreboard on their site. Even without giving shooters personal publicity, we still give their actions enormous attention ($75 million worth, per Lankford’s estimate above). These horrors are absolutely newsworthy, and it would be wrong not to discuss them. But there’s a wide spectrum of what “discuss” means. Report on facts? Tally up numbers? Show graphic on-the-scene details, or emotional interviews with distraught victims? Lurid, second-by-second breakdowns of everything the faceless shooter did? At that point, has the facelessness really hurt their notoriety much?

Again, nobody knows the full answer yet. We can be confident — from empirical experience with suicides and ISIS, and reasonable inference from past mass murders — that no-notoriety is a good idea. That the best reporting is fact-focused and doesn’t dwell on the murderer’s actions before, during, or after the shooting. And that focusing on the victims and heroes gives the spotlight to the best people among us.

So that’s a good place to start. If you are the best among us, you get all the attention. And if you’re the worst, you get none. No attention to your persona, your motives, your tactics, or anything else. Just nothing. Silence. Let’s spend no timing rubbernecking at the horror. And let’s use that time to lift up the best among us.

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