Dangerous Media

With the massacre at Virginia Tech weighing on everyone’s mind, we must look at the causal role that society, especially mass media (including the internet) plays in such tragedies. Much is discussed about the personal influences of mass-murderers, what “lead” them to do horrific deeds. Was it their parents who abused them, the fellow students who harassed them, the lover who scorned them, or some chemical/psychological imbalance that caused them to go off the deep end? What about the easy access to weapons? Clearly all of these factors and more can, and do contribute. But the secret sauce in such recipes for disaster is mass media.

Media cannot be divorced from culture, indeed, it is an integral part. It is at once the Greek chorus reflecting society’s values, and also is (increasingly) the creator and amplifier of evolving and new values. Editorial media (such as TV and newspapers) have agents in charge of who gets what information. These agents take umbrage at, and often simply ignore, claims that they have an active role in shaping or creating social disasters like suicide, mass homicide, and under extreme circumstances even genocide. The reaction is natural, for what news anchor or columnist wants to admit to blood on their hands; after all, you can’t shoot the messenger. Or can you? Suicide rates famously increase after a highly publicized suicide, so perhaps we should hold editors at least partially accountable for violent or self-destructive copycats.

But what about distributed media (such as email and telephone) with no identifiable prime mover? We are all guilty — possibly many times over — of contributing to a gossip chain or urban legend. Most of the time such activity is harmless, and at times we think we are doing good by warning our loved ones against danger. Sometimes though, viral memes do serious damage, like the pyramid scheme that destroyed the economy of Albania in 1997 and lead to the overthrow of the government. Less dramatically, when we don’t protect against computer viruses, we allow (by our negligence) the infection of hundreds of others. By participating in everyday societal activity, we are all guilty to some degree.

In the case of distributed media, wherein all members of society are potential agents of transmission, we have a fairly straightforward way to limit the potential destruction. We simply make it illegal or taboo to engage in activities that would lead to harm. Even if the activities in question are “only” informational, we do recognize their impact. Thus conspiracy to commit murder carries the same sentence as the act itself, and your sacred right of free speech is limited in some cases, like when you incite riots. Social pressures can be just as effective, e.g. blatant and gratuitous gossip is frowned upon and gossipers are avoided by those who would keep secrets.

In the case of editorial media though, we have yet as a society to grapple effectively with the conflict between our intuitive right to free expression, and the harm that such expression causes. The government goes overboard by stifling important disclosure and debate in the name of “national security”. On the other hand, editorial media does not own up nearly enough to its role in causing societal ills or its power to stop them. To wit, how can we justify the actions of the paparazzi to make public life for celebrities a living hell (or in the case of princesses, worse)? You may say that celebs have given up all privacy in their Faustian bargain for fame and fortune, but they are citizens first and public figures second. Even if you discount individual celebrities’ rights entirely, the cult of celebrity has taken us to a point that many people find disheartening at best. What do kids aspire to these days, is it world peace, personal happiness or even making money? No, according to a recent survey, they want to become famous. In other words, they want to be in the cross-hairs of dangerous media.

So, what do we say if it turns out that shows like “To Catch a Predator” actually create more predators than they catch? Just as in the case of suicides, the mere display of certain behaviors will cause some other people to emulate them. How does this happen? In a population of hundreds of millions there is always going to be a distribution of psychopaths, sociopaths, depressives, and marginalized people. The larger the population the longer the tail of the distribution, meaning the larger the sub-population of ill people “at risk” for doing harm, either to themselves or to others. Certainly not all of those at risk will succumb to alluring imagery and memes, but depending on individual circumstances and current pressures, anyone at risk could become violent or suicidal.

It is hard for someone who is not at risk, who thinks somewhat rationally and dispassionately, to understand the thoughts and desires of those at risk. Needless to say they are thinking very differently. What disgusts, horrifies and outrages a “normal” person, might at times seem perfectly acceptable or even attractive to someone on the margins. We all tend to become attracted to images and ideas that we see repeated, and we take our cues of acceptable behavior from those around us. So is it any surprise that someone who is depressed would be increasingly receptive to the idea the more they hear of others who commit suicide? And would it really be much of a stretch to think that all of the closeted pedophiles lurking in chat rooms would become emboldened to act after seeing their “peers” show up on TV week after week? Hey, that person looks pretty normal, just like me!

The solution to the problem of dangerous media is not easy. To try to regulate or legislate would be a mistake because such actions would run counter to the values that our society holds dear. The downward slope towards Big Brother and totalitarianism is slippery indeed. But the alternative does not have to be complacency; we are not forced to choose between the two extremes.

Social issues are never black or white. Cultural values, conventions and mores are more powerful than any laws. The solution is for us, as individuals who “consume” media and as media agents, to realize what we have wrought, realize we have a personal choice, and realize that we can influence those around us by our example and our proclamations. We don’t have to watch or support TV shows that are gratuitous (however we each define that). As decision-makers in corporate media or members of the watercooler gossip gang, we don’t have to encourage or transmit harmful media. The refrain of “giving the public what they want” and “just doing our jobs” becomes more hollow the more we realize of the dynamics at play, particularly the costs to us as a society. Moreover, we have the power to ostracize, shame, coerce and cajole those who insist on societally destructive self-indulgence and turning of blind eyes. We also must realize that, as in the case of all negative self-perpetuating institutions, if we are not aware of and actively countering dangerous media, it has the potential to destroy the very freedoms that we use to justify the status quo.

We have seen the predator, and it is us. We dare not legislate away our freedoms. But as free individuals, we can choose to not participate, to not be part of the problem. And with our newly available time and attention, we can choose to focus on building a healthier society.

  • Paul P

    What do kids aspire to these days, is it world peace, personal happiness or even making money? No, according to a recent survey, they want to become famous.

    It’s the natural end result of people valuing external validation over self-validation. Until we do something about that, fame will be the ultimate validation for most people.

    It gets harder and harder to become broadly famous as the number of people who can dominate the mass media is largely limited by the number of hours in a day, but the number of people competing for those spots only increases. Thus there is constant selective pressure to pursue the VT killer’s route to fame, the only route that’s available to anyone – it’s hard to do something noteworthy, and you can’t control getting lucky. Every borderline personality who watches the spectacular infamy the killer earned in the aftermath drifts closer to crossing the line.

    It’ll get worse before it gets better.

  • Good observation, I agree.


    With the proliferation of media of all kinds, I can’t help but think people are, ironically, getting stupider, in the sense of being influenced by bad information. By this I mean misinformation or pornogrphically-titillating information (like Virginia Tech) or just stupid useless information, like Paris Hilton. It still remains an empirical quesiton, and not easy to answer, whether we are overall more in danger from evil, such as madmen with guns, than we ever were. I think we’re probably safer in this country than people have ever been (as long as you’re white).

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  • To DADDY’s point about us being safer in this country than people have ever been, here’s an interesting talk by Steve Pinker which confirms this claim. Pinker mentions the role of the media in our common misconception that violence is rising, when in fact it’s been the opposite throughout the history of civilization. He gives four theories that people have for why violence declines over time, and it turns out that all four theories can be seen as involving cooperation and the benefits thereof.

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