We are scaring ourselves to death over terrorism

What comes through our screens does not necessarily represent reality

Saint Etienne church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray where Fr Jacques Hamel was killed. Terrorism – the use of murderous violence against civilians to spread fear and uncertainty – is inextricably linked with the emergence of mass media. Photograph: Ian Langsdon/EPA

We live in an increasingly dangerous and terrifying world. Religious fanatics and the psychologically disordered threaten our lives in an escalating spiral of mass terror. From nightclubs in Florida to churches in France and shopping malls in Munich, nowhere seems to be safe from unspeakable atrocities that our governments are powerless to prevent.

Actually, none of this is true. We live in a safer, more peaceful world than any previous generation did. The relatively new threat of Islamist terrorism in western Europe is real, as is the suffering it has caused. There are valid fears it may worsen with the arrival of jihadi fighters from Syria and Iraq. But deaths from terrorism in Europe are still lower than they were in the 1970s and 1980s.

So why do we believe we're living in a world of terror? "People think the world is getting worse, but what's actually happening is our information about what's wrong in the world is getting better," futurologist Ray Kurzweil told a conference in the US last week. "A century ago, there would be a battle that wiped out the next village, you'd never even hear about it. Now, there's an incident halfway around the globe and we not only hear about it, we experience it." Kurzweil says we have a genetic orientation towards bad news, based on our previous evolutionary need to be constantly alert to potential threats to our lives. This skews our perceptions of the true level of threat, and it's this distorted reality field that offers attractive opportunities for extremists and for people suffering from violent psychological disorders (the distinction between the two groups is increasingly blurred).

This natural appetite for bad news is reflected every day in newspapers. And terrorism – the use of murderous violence against civilians to spread fear and uncertainty – is inextricably linked with the emergence of mass media, first the popular press in the 19th century, then radio and TV in the 20th. Terrorism does not work in totalitarian states, because, without publicity, such acts are pointless. But when media and communications technology change, so do acts of terrorist violence, along with the people who carry them out and the way they are experienced by their intended audience.


Technology may also be having an impact on those who carry out these crimes, many of whom are driven by a desire for self-actualisation through nihilistic but intensely media-literate acts of destruction, often supported by like-minded online communities. While some claim adherence to an extremist ideology, many also have records of psychiatric illness. Is it a good idea to give them the saturation coverage they crave, and even encouraging others to follow their example?

Not publishing

Several French news organisations are ceasing to publish photographs of people responsible for terrorist killings. Le Monde decided to "no longer publish photographs of the perpetrators of killings, to avoid the potential effect of posthumous glorification". The newspaper said it would "continually debate" other practices in relation to the coverage of terrorism, including suppressing the names of terrorists. However, several other French media organisations argue – correctly – that suppressing names and pictures of terrorists will increase public anxiety and people's belief that they are being kept in the dark by mainstream media. Besides, there's something archaic about trying to suppress information of this sort in the era of digital distribution.

We live in the age of the liveblog and the mobile push alert, of eyewitness video uploaded instantaneously, and increasingly of livestreams from the scene. These technologies profoundly change how we access and experience news of terrible events and atrocities. They seem nearer, more vividly violent and more intimately connected with our own lives. The fact that they unspool before our eyes in real time makes them feel even more frightening, chaotic and personally threatening.

In the last few days, I've received multiple alerts from, among others, The Irish Times, RTÉ and the BBC about a nightclub shooting in Florida, a mass murder in Japan, three attacks in Germany and the killing of a priest in France. In the old era of analogue broadcasting, newsflashes were for earth-shattering events. Now, media organisations send an alert to millions of people immediately, hoping they will swipe open the story. What's most vital is to get that notification out ahead of the competition, all of whom are racing to turn the same few scraps of early – probably incorrect – information. For the user, it can feel like we're being pelted with pain and horror all the time.

Raw footage

This frantic scramble for a split-second advantage is not conducive to high standards of journalism, while unmediated access to raw footage means people are now seeing explicit content to which they would never have been exposed before.

Eighteen months ago, I was liveblogging the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks from The Irish Times newsroom when we received footage of the murder of a police officer outside the magazine's office. We didn't publish the video, but others did and anyway it was posted online by thousands of people. It seemed like a staging point in a transition to a newer, more desensitised media environment.

As traditional media’s gatekeeper role declines, disturbing and intrusive images of dead and dying people are now seen by millions. Add the fact these stories will pop up within the user’s personal digital ecosystem of Facebook updates and WhatsApp messages, and the unsettling effect becomes even stronger.

The architecture of mobile operating systems and social media platforms makes no allowance for context or the relative importance of one story over another. So the gap between the reality of terrorist violence and our own apprehension of it is widening. It’s also unlikely that the way in which the media handles these stories will change for the better, given commercial pressures. The prospect is that the rise of video live streaming will encourage terrorists to step the staging of their acts up to a grimmer level. And that it will become harder to remember that what comes at you through your screen is not necessarily reality. Hugh Linehan is Culture Editor