Mass Shootings’ Social Contagion

Why we need to stop making murderers (in)famous

Mass Shootings' Social Contagion
Credit: Thomas Fuchs
archetype: Herostratus, the arsonist who burned down the second Temple of Artemis in Ephesus to immortalize his name, albeit in infamy. As Roman writer Valerius Maximus noted, “A man was found to plan the burning of the temple of Ephesian Diana so that through the destruction of this most beautiful building his name might be spread through the whole world.”

Indeed, here I am, spreading it. In response to his terrible act, Herostratus was given the damnatio memoriae treatment: he was removed from all official historical records, and all public mention of him was banned. The magnitude of his crime, however, meant that he eventually found his way to some accounts nonetheless.

Contrast damnatio memoriae with our own treatment of mass shooters. Most readers who were old enough when the Columbine tragedy happened almost certainly know the names of the shooters. It is understandable because when confronted with the seemingly unimaginable, we want to understand, so we turn our attention to the individuals. Mass shooters’ names and faces dominate the media, and if they leave manifestos, those spread virally as well. Even if they are being condemned, they are noted, remembered and immortalized.

Unfortunately, not everyone reacts in horror. The man who murdered 26 people at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., an almost unfathomable crime, was obsessed with the fame and attention the Columbine shooters received. He collected clippings about their act and downloaded videos and other material from other mass shootings, as well as gun suicides. He then went on to commit his own horror.

This is not an isolated case. We have quantitative evidence that reveals a spike in such shootings in the period following extensive mass media coverage of one, and reports and law-enforcement investigations show that many shooters study previous shooters, collect news stories about them and study their methods. In a terrible twist, they even focus on the numbers of their victims in an effort to up that count—realizing that the higher the number, the more coverage and attention they will receive in the “rankings,” so to speak, as if it were a video-game scoreboard.

None of this is meant to make light of the other factors—availability of guns or mental health support—and does not necessarily speak to all mass shootings, some of which are more akin to terrorism. It does, however, tell us something important about ancient wisdom: damnatio memoriae may well be the correct method, as hard as it may seem.

In the modern world, we cannot and should not censor media coverage of the event; however, we can definitely change the way we report it and talk about it. Instead of profiling the murderers, we can focus on the victims; instead of publicizing their often incoherent ramblings, we can dismiss the content as the pathetic words of murderers, and we can certainly avoid plastering the faces and the names of the killers on media outlets and social media. That will not be a full solution, because the other factors need tackling as well, but it is one important step in denying these troubled men the one thing they seek above almost everything: posthumous infamy.

This article was originally published with the title “Shootings and Social Contagion” in Scientific American 321, 5, 82 (November 2019)

doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1119-82

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

Zeynep Tufekci

    Zeynep Tufekci is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science and a regular contributor to the New York Times. Her book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, was published by Yale University Press in 2017.

    Credit: Nick Higgins

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