French Media Stopped Publishing Terrorists’ Photos. Research Says They’re Right.
Ankita Rao reports at Motherboard:
A few weeks ago some major French newspapers decided to stop publishing the photos and names of terrorists. It was days after dozens of people were killed in a brutal attack in the coastal town of Nice, and the global community was scrambling to find out more about the violent man behind the wheel.
Publications including Le Monde and La Croix were making a big statement by refusing to participate in what they called a “strategy of hate.” Terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram thrive on media attention, claiming attacks and terrorists as their own and pushing their message through social media and YouTube. Headlines can feed their pride.
But the French media’s decision struck me as more than a reaction to the horror—these narratives of killing can have a profound effect on our brains and minds. As a consumer and producer of media, I think what the publishers in France are trying to do by withholding these clickable details could be a poignant experiment in fighting violence. And there’s plenty of science to support it.
In the 1980s an Italian neuroscientist named Giacomo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma identified specific brain cells called mirror neurons for the first time. These are the neurons that fuel mimicry, imitation, and sometimes empathy when you see another person’s actions. And they fire immediately.
In a simple example, mirror neurons are often behind what make you cringe when you see someone else get hurt. You can see yourself in their shoes, so their pain is your pain. In one experiment, researchers found that activating mirror neurons while numbing other parts of the prefrontal cortex actually made people more generous and ready to donate money for a cause.
But mirror neurons are also one of the reasons that people might mimic acts of violence that they see—whether it’s bullying someone at school, or picking up a gun with intentions to shoot as many people as possible. “You can pick, you can choose. You can choose to imitate the victim or the aggressor,” said Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at UCLA who is researching mirror neurons.
In his book Mirroring People, Iacoboni says the concept of imitative violence, powered by mirror neurons, is evident in children who watch violence in the media. Show kids a violent film, he writes, and they exhibit some aggressive behavior right after. (This does not mean they necessarily become more violent people.) And in real life, this could account for the 350 threats of school violence that directly followed the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. . .