OSD 113: Fearless (OSD’s version)
It's most important to win friends when it's most tempting not to try.
Mass murder is in the news again. These times are pivotal because, fairly or not, mainstream thoughts about gun rights are mediated by mainstream thoughts about mass shootings. People’s views on the latter determine people’s views on the former. That’s why it’s so important not to spend this time being quiet and not to spend it being shouty.
Everything that we preach — be friendly, be welcoming, and elevate the discussion — doesn’t go by the wayside in tough times. Quite the opposite. It becomes more important than ever. If people have the wrong idea about you, that’s not a time to be afraid or a time to prove them right. It’s a time to engage.
In that spirit, we need to show up as a community with some deep thinking about these events. People need some action to latch onto, so if we don’t offer it, they’re going to get it from somewhere else. The “do something” impulse isn’t always rational, but hey, people aren’t always rational. “I can’t be effective if people are irrational” is just another way of saying “I can’t be effective.” So let’s hold ourselves to a high bar: be effective in all conditions.
To that end, we wrote a piece a while ago to serve as a touchstone for this stuff: “What is going on with mass shootings? Lessons from past solved problems.”
The last section of it is excerpted below. You can click the link above to read the whole thing — it has some important, data-driven lessons from the 1980s Vienna subway suicide epidemic and the mid-2010s rash of ISIS terrorist attacks. Center the discussion on the issues laid out here. They connect really well once people hear them. Let’s make sure they hear them, and that we don’t run away from discussing this stuff.
…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 time rubbernecking at the horror. And let’s use that time to lift up the best among us.
This week’s links
Stephen is the best hard-news journalist working the gun beat. He’s moving his reporting to his own newsletter. Highly recommended.
A highly shareable longform discussion.
A new look at an old-school idea.
Super underrated rifle. Here’s the Forgotten Weapons breakdown of it, too.
It goes to the state Senate next. It last came up in Texas in 2019, when the bill didn’t even make it out of House committee. This issue is a great example of the quietly accelerating victories that gun rights have been racking up. Here are the number of states with permitless carry over the past decade:
In 2019, it was tenable to be viewed as a pro-gun-rights legislator while still supporting the idea of carry permits. It’s interesting how quickly that’s changing. With 2-4 states going to permitless carry each year, if Texas doesn’t pass it this year, it may not even be among the first 50% of states to pass it. Will be interesting to see how that factors into the state Senate’s thinking.
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