In the wake of the attacks on two Christchurch mosques, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared that she would never mention the suspect’s name. “He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless,” she said after the two shootings that claimed 50 lives. It is a wise decision. The perpetrators of such atrocities want to cause mayhem and kill, but they also seek fame and notoriety. They must be denied that spotlight. They must know that their acts may live infamy, but their names and identities will not.
It is a disturbing fact that mass killings inspire other troubled human beings. The shooter who killed 33 people at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2007 closely studied the two high school students who murdered 13 people at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. The killer who took five lives in 2008 at Northern Illinois University studied the Virginia and Colorado attacks, as did the perpetrator of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. While it is reassuring to think that such incidents are the product of specific cultures and unique to certain countries, that belief is false. Canadian mass shooters studied their predecessors in terror. The Christchurch assailant painted the names of other infamous killers on his weapons and equipment.
Researchers have concluded that giving perpetrators of atrocities publicity has a “contagion effect.” After studying dozens of mass shootings between 1966 and 2015, Adam Lankford argued that “Making mass shooters famous increases the risk that they’ll become role models who are worshipped by future copycat attackers.” He identified 24 cases in which fame and media coverage were key motivators for killing. One individual, who killed 12 people and wounded 50 others after opening fire in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, said that he felt he “couldn’t make [a] mark on the world with science, but could become famous by blowing up people.” Or, as Lankford concluded, “they want to be celebrities.”
This contagion or “copycat” effect is well known when it comes to suicides. Japan, for example, has had several incidents in which the death of a celebrity prompted others to follow suit. One analysis concluded that “media reports on celebrity suicides have an immediate impact on the number of suicides in the general population.” The perpetrator of the 2008 massacre in Tokyo’s Akihabara that claimed seven lives and injured 10 others reportedly referred to an earlier stabbing spree and prompted several others to copy him.
A desire for fame is evident from videos that killers make before they commence their sprees, the screeds that they publish to justify their actions and win support, and, still more horrific, from attempts to livestream attacks, as the Christchurch killer did. This is “media-driven narcissism,” concludes one observer, an effort “to become more famous than the previous mass killer. To make their killings more sensational.”
There are several ways to stop, or at least, slow, this pathetic competition. The first was laid out by Arden: Deny mass murderers the spotlight and notoriety that they crave. Refusing to name a perpetrator or publish their pseudo-literate scribblings or videos removes one powerful force behind their actions. A number of organizations have taken up the case for the silent treatment. Groups like No Notoriety have joined with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation to promote the “Don’t Name Them” campaign. Two years ago, nearly 150 criminologists, sociologists, psychologists and other human behavior experts signed an open letter asking the media to stop publishing the names and photographs of mass killers.
A second critical step is to demand more of social media firms. They must not be allowed to hide behind claims that they are neutral institutions with a limited role to play in policing contents. They have proven extraordinarily effective at monetizing all sorts of data and information. That same energy, intellect and computing power must be applied to content control. That may result in excessive censorship, but these are private organizations — albeit with extraordinary power — and it is far better in these cases to err on the side of excessive caution given the potential consequences.
The most powerful objections to the “no-name policy” come from the media. They argue that the public has a right to know the details behind such incidents, and that information is vital to understanding what has transpired. As powerful, but less often acknowledged, is the career boost that can come from a scoop on stories of this type. A “no-name policy” does not mean a total news blackout. It would merely remove the perpetrator’s name from reporting, and encourage coverage to be framed in ways that paint a picture of the killer as a criminal or a terrorist. They must not be portrayed as heroes or victims. And a “no-name policy” is not absolute: If a suspect is on the loose, he or she should be identified to help law enforcement. Otherwise, silence is truly golden.