Why do we watch terrorist videos and what effect do they have on us?

The mass audience attracted by videos such as that of the Christchurch attack raises urgent and uncomfortable questions. 

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In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on two mosques in New Zealand that killed 50 people, internet companies struggled to take down footage of the shooting, which the gunman livestreamed on Facebook. According to the Guardian, in the four days after the attack and long after the original video had been removed, it was reuploaded on the social media site 1.5 million times. YouTube told the newspaper that, at points, a video of the attack was being added to the site every second. New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern condemned social media sites for their role in disseminating the horrific footage, and the incident intensified questions over how internet companies should regulate and remove violent, graphic or offensive content. Another question, one that is raised less often but is no less urgent is: why were so many people so eager to see the video in the first place? Why do we watch terrorist videos, and what effect do they have on us?

Researchers have long studied the effects of violent computer games or horror films on viewers but have paid less attention to the impact of real-life violence. In a paper published in the journal American Psychologist in March, a group of researchers from the University of California, Irvine, set out to redress the imbalance. In mid-2015, more than half a year after the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff were beheaded by Isis, the researchers asked a representative national sample of 3,294 US residents whether they had watched one or more Isis beheading videos. Around a quarter of them had, of which 5 per cent had watched at least one video all the way through. In some respects, this figure is remarkable – neither video was broadcast by mainstream news organisations, so viewers had to go through some effort to seek them out. Why would you scour the internet for something as gruesome and disturbing as a beheading video? That said, we know that the videos went viral and that, in the days after Foley’s death, YouTube searches for the term “beheading” peaked.

When the respondents were asked why they viewed the videos, a large proportion said they wanted more information on the news story, or were curious. A smaller number said death didn’t bother them, or that they wanted to understand “why Muslims hate the rest of the world so much”, or that they had watched it by accident. One limitation of the study, acknowledged by the authors, is that people may not have accurate insight into why they clicked on the video. Statistically, a substantial proportion of readers of this piece – a quarter, perhaps – may have done the same, and I wager that it’s not easy to accurately describe why.

I don’t enjoy reflecting on how close I came myself to seeking out the video of Foley’s killing. I was emotional, because I feel a collegiate sense of solidarity with any journalist, and I think I harboured both morbid curiosity and the belief that if I were to write about the incident (which I did) I had a duty to bear witness. I never did watch though, out of respect for Foley and his family, and because I know such a video can never be unseen.

The University of California study identified several traits that were associated with being more likely to view the video: being male, Christian and unemployed, watching a lot of TV, having a pre-existing heightened fear of terrorism and having previously being exposed to violence (such as having been the victim of assault or domestic violence, or having lost a loved one to suicide or murder). Crucially, they found that even two years after the beheading videos went viral, those who watched them were more fearful of future events, including potential terrorist attacks. In this way then, when large numbers of people watch terrorist videos it helps further militants’ central aim: to spread terror. Authoritarian regimes have long understood that public executions are an effective form of social control because they spread fear, terrorist groups such as Isis have learned that you don’t necessarily have to force people to witness such atrocities – many of us will seek them out.

Sarah Redmond, one of the authors of the report and a PhD student at the University of California, acknowledged that a different demographic might be attracted to graphic footage posted by far-right terrorists, and that we can’t confidently extrapolate much information from the Isis study about the types of people most likely to watch the mosque attacks online. But the study does underline why it’s crucial for internet companies to develop effective ways to block content posted by terrorist groups, or else risk aiding militants.

It also offers lessons for the media: the authors suggest that by publishing screen shots of the beheading and warning that the footage was too graphic to share, the media inadvertently stoked interest in the original footage, the horrifying images working in the manner of a film trailer. Newspapers and websites should think more carefully about how they write about such videos, Redmond suggests, to avoid sensationalising and inadvertently promoting them.

More importantly, however, she wants viewers to understand what terrorist videos do to them. “In this new media age, it’s easy for an individual to upload a video like that, and Facebook and other sites aren’t able to take them down simultaneously. It’s for the individual to understand that we are seeing this relationship between watching and psychological distress and fear. It’s up to individuals to ask themselves: is this something they want to expose themselves to?” Redmond says. The friends and families of those killed in Christchurch did not ask for the tragedy that was thrust upon them and will likely grieve forever. The millions of people who viewed the footage did so voluntarily and, in a different way, they too may be permanently changed by it.

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.