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Thursday, November 30, 2023

A Question of Notoriety: Should Media Withhold the Names of Extremist Killers?

Even if mainstream media stopped reporting on mass killers, their names would still be circulated within a motivational ecosystem that serves as a breeding ground for copycats.

Social media is a cesspool of opportunism and disinformation after a mass shooting. Some are anxiously speculating about or waiting to find out the killer’s ethnic background, religion, gender, voter registration, etc., in the hope of using these details to attack their ideological opponents. Some furiously try to be first with information about the shooter and will post the first image in Google results that matches the name of a potential suspect regardless of the risk of misidentification. Some repost wildly inaccurate or unverified details from spurious news sources. And some outright praise the shooter for taking violent action, whether sharing the frustrations of an incel killer, expressing ideological common ground when an extremist motive becomes apparent, or showing elation at the choice of target before a motive is even known.

When the shooter is identified by law enforcement — sometimes quickly, sometimes at a cautious pace that feeds the rumor mill — a debate is renewed about whether or not to say the killer’s name. Some police officials and media outlets take a “one and done” approach of only saying the suspect’s name once, citing a need to confirm or deny names rapidly swirling online. Those who refuse to state the name of the shooter will often cite a desire to deny a killer any notoriety, believing that the perpetrator sought media exposure and should not receive it and/or fearing that disseminating a name and photograph will inspire others to commit violent acts in order to get their own name and mugshot in the same place.

After a heinous crime people either directly or indirectly affected understandably may not want to say the name of the person who decimated so many lives; these killers don’t deserve anyone wasting breath on speaking their names. But there remains a question about whether saying those names indeed leads to more mass shootings, and whether the benefits that come from transparency about mass killers and their motives outweigh any risks.

The U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center’s report Mass Attacks in Public Spaces: 2016-2020, which studied 173 attacks that resulted in 513 deaths, broke down the perpetrators’ components of motive. Fifty-one percent over the years studied were driven by grievances — personal, domestic, or workplace — with this motive climbing from 40 percent of attackers in 2016 to 60 percent in 2020. Eighteen percent were motivated by ideological, bias-related, or political beliefs, while 14 percent committed an attack out of a motive related to their psychotic symptoms. Three-quarters of all attacks were propelled by one or more of these top three motives, the report notes. The fourth component to motive at 7 percent of attacks was simply having a desire to kill — the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting in which extensive investigation of shooter Stephen Paddock yielded no clear-cut motive, for example. Six percent of attacks had a desire for fame or notoriety as a component of motive — a number that peaked in 2017 at 8 percent but was only 3 percent in 2018. Other motive components, also at 6 percent, included a desire to be killed by police and one school shooter who saw his attack as a social experiment.

Some manifestos released by recent extremist mass shooters have reflected, within many detailed pages of motives, on whether or not they sought fame beyond their intended audience for their attacks or if they considered notoriety a relevant factor. Buffalo mass shooter Payton Gendron expressed a desire to incite in his manifesto — “to show the effect of direct action, lighting a path forward for those that wish to follow” — and said he got his own beliefs and encouragement “mostly from the internet.” In a self Q&A that asked if he carried out the attack to attain fame, Gendron wrote, “I carried this attack out so I can influence others into defending themselves from the replacers, becoming infamous was the only way.” Poway synagogue shooter John Earnest wrote that he expected a race revolution in which he would be freed from prison and then would “have a family if possible,” stating, “I do not seek fame. I do not seek power.” Christchurch mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant did his own manifesto Q&A, asking whether he committed the attack “to receive media coverage” and have a wider platform for his motivating white supremacist beliefs. No, the attack was a end in itself, with all the necessary affect required,” Tarrant wrote. “These writing, and their coverage, are just a bonus.”

The question of whether a killer’s name should be the top story loses relevance when one considers where future killers are getting their “news,” worldview, and violent encouragement. For some mass killers notoriety is a motive — but notoriety among the sect that would be circulating their name, image, bio, manifesto, videos, social media posts, etc., regardless of mainstream media coverage.

There are copycat killers — inspiration was declared even among the aforementioned shooters — and simply the knowledge of an attack happening or certain available details can be enough of a push for a potential attacker already teetering on the edge; consider the short timeframe and soft-target selections but divergent motives in the January mass shootings in Half Moon Bay, Calif., and Monterey Park, Calif., both committed by the rare shooter demographic of senior Asian males. Extremist movements openly encourage copycats and offer copious details about perpetrators as they urge would-be attackers to beat a previous killer’s “score.” But these potential copycats are not dependent upon mainstream news coverage to be fed this incitement as extremists operate in their own media ecosystems; a stated notoriety motive should take into account whether the killer sought name recognition from media outlets that will decry his crimes or a lasting notoriety among their motivational ecosystem.

Indeed, among extremists there is deep inherent distrust in the media to tell the story of the attack and talk about the perpetrator with their preferred spin.

ISIS has long complained about their negative coverage in mainstream media and censorship by social media, and told supporters it’s thus a non-negotiable duty to contribute to their own media across a variety of platforms. “By all its types whether audio, visual, paper, satellite or internet,” using various forms of media “is a necessity and is also urgent in order to propagate and cause defeatism and demoralization of the enemy, and show the strength of the mujahideen,” ISIS Khorasan said in the group’s English-language Voice of Khurasan magazine in March.

“The media is infamous for fake news,” El Paso Walmart shooter Patrick Crusius wrote in his manifesto. “Their reaction to this attack will likely just confirm that.”

The Hard Reset, a 261-page accelerationist guide released last year, includes a message to “the next disciples” that aims to assure future killers that their publicity strategy and rollout is in the hands of “Terrorgram,” tailored to a Terrorgram audience. Tips were included to craft a comprehensive manifesto — “share your radicalization story with us” — and would-be attackers were asked to “please include lots of selfies we can use” as “we’ll be making edits and tributes to you for years to come.” They promised to “immortalize” and disseminate any attack livestream “so that it continues to serve its intended purpose” of inspiring future killers.

Bratislava LGBTQ bar shooter Juraj Krajčík noted in his manifesto that 8chan, where he found Earnest’s manifesto, “continues to live on as a source of inspiration for thousands” and questioned the value of mainstream coverage. “The definition of ‘optics’ is determined by the enemy, and this makes it completely irrelevant to even try and maintain ‘good optics,’” he wrote, adding, “Don’t appeal to the masses from the start — appeal to your own side… they are the ones that you convince to fight.” For these killers, it’s about achieving notoriety within a desired group — where the coverage cannot be controlled, where no one will be exercising responsible coverage, and where access is open.

Even if mainstream media stopped reporting on mass killers, their names or nicknames — such as incels referring to Isla Vista killer Elliot Rodger as “supreme gentleman,” or neo-Nazis simply using imagery of Charleston shooter Dylann Roof’s bowl haircut — would still be circulated within their motivational ecosystem. It’s in these locations — be it online forums, chat apps, websites, social media, videos, file-sharing sites, etc. — where would-be copycats can flourish. The stew is ideal for the contagion effect: a community of anons cheering on the killer, paeans posted about the killer and his “score,” images of the killer crafted into tribute memes that incite further violence, full copies of manifestos or other posts from the killer, open discussion of tactics and weapons and targets, and more.

The motivational ecosystem is the network that nourishes extremism and potential violent activity, be it white supremacist, antisemitic, Islamist extremist, accelerationist, ecofascist, militia, anti-government, incel, etc. In the accelerationist ecosystem, for example, future copycats are encouraged to emulate “Saint” Brenton Tarrant as “disciples” who cite the Christchurch killer’s inspiration in their own manifestos. Crusius, Earnest, Gendron, Krajčík, Oslo mosque shooter Philip Manshaus, and Halle synagogue shooter Stephan Balliet are all recognized copycats as such.

The activity within these ecosystems reflects, as seen in the NTAC statistics, that the motive for most mass shooters is much more than a simple quest for notoriety. Grievances fuel extremism and vice versa. Someone driven to kill by believing they need to accelerate the downfall of society, or exterminate Blacks and Jews, or support a conspiracy theory, or bring about a theocracy, or inflict pain on fellow co-workers or students to quench a grievance won’t be dissuaded from committing an attack by a fear that mainstream networks won’t say their name enough. With or without a spotlight, the core motive remains.

But what good can come from identifying a killer, disseminating details about his or her background, and ensuring that the public is reminded about not only what happened in the attack but who did it?

Understanding the face of radicalization: It is important for the public to see that a killer can look and act like an “ordinary” person — the co-worker who comes to the water cooler every day, the quiet or gregarious student in class, someone’s sibling or child or romantic partner. To get people to “see something, say something” you have to overcome the “but” doubt: there are warning signs “but he would never do that,” there are concerning communications “but I don’t think he has a gun,” there are behaviors or indicators of violence “but he has a family so would never act out,” etc. In the midst of  sensational coverage about the scope and gruesomeness of serial killer Ted Bundy’s crimes, Americans learned that a serial killer does not necessarily look a certain way and can use that defiance of stereotypes to win trust and convince others to look the other way or even be lured into a deadly situation. Mass attacks leave a swath of devastation and were not committed by a nameless, faceless attacker but someone who lived among us and became a mass shooter. What were the factors along the way that took them from a student, a co-worker, a spouse or parent to a killer? And, importantly, what were indicators of their descent to violence that could have seen and reported by others?

By not editing or censoring the fact that it was 18-year-old Payton Gendron who targeted the Buffalo grocery store wielding a Bushmaster XM-15 and killed 10 people, that it was 28-year-old Brenton Tarrant who killed 51 worshippers at two mosques with multiple weapons, or that it was 21-year-old Dylann Roof who was welcomed into the Emanuel AME Bible study before he killed 9 people with a Glock 41, efforts to stop the next mass shooting will hopefully benefit from the transparency. It makes it harder for people to “see something, say something” in the attack planning stages if they’re conditioned to look for stereotypes — believing, for example, that someone motivated by neo-Nazi ideology should be full of skinhead tattoos or that an Islamist extremist attacker would only act pious.

Showing the killer(s) name and face can help the investigation: Not all killers come with an up-to-date Rolodex, an obvious social media trail, or surveillance-captured footage of their movements in the days, weeks, or months before an attack. Members of the public who recognize or were even associated with an attacker and report this to law enforcement can help paint a picture of not only the killer’s motivations, state of mind, weapons and/or training acquisition, and the full breadth of their plot, but can potentially open a window into broader groups or ideological movements with whom the killer was associated and who may be likewise prone to attacks. Investigational assistance can help open windows into motivational ecosystems.

Regardless of whether a name is spoken the deeds are known — leading a copycat to emulate tactics or targets and perhaps the motive of that unnamed guy who shot up said location. Regardless of mainstream media coverage, the killer’s name will already be distributed within online communities that are most likely to cheer for or be inspired by the killer. Discussing details of a perpetrator, from pre-crime life to planning and execution of the attack, can further understanding outside the security sphere of characteristics or patterns that can be recognized in potential mass shooters. Media coverage can carefully humanize a killer without painting a sympathetic picture — because getting people past a mindset that this is not the “type of guy” who could open fire is critical to improving the public’s ability to say something if they see something.

The echo chamber of extremist circles, meanwhile, will never stop circulating the names and messages of mass killers. They may find mainstream coverage entertaining or deride it for not painting their “saint” in a positive light, but their cause — and their quest to inspire copycats — isn’t relying on the evening news to find the next shooter.

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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