In the summer of 2014, two videos were released that shocked the world. They showed the beheadings, by ISIS, of two American journalists – first, James Foley and then Steven Sotloff. Though the videos were widely discussed on TV, print and online news, most outlets did not show the full footage. However, it was not difficult to find links to the videos online.
At the time, Sarah Redmond at the University of California, Irvine and her colleagues were already a year into a longitudinal study to assess psychological responses to the Boston Marathon Bombing, which happened in April 2013. They realised that they could use the same nationally representative sample of US adults to investigate what kind of person chooses to watch an ISIS beheading – and why. Their findings now appear in a paper published in American Psychologist.
By late spring 2013, the researchers had recruited 4,675 adults online, and assessed their mental health, TV-watching habits, demographics, political affiliation and religion. Six months later, the participants also reported on their fear of future terrorism and also on their lifetime exposure to violence. Then, between April and June 2015 – roughly eight months after the two ISIS beheading videos were released – 3,294 of the participants reported anonymously whether they had watched one of the videos either in its entirety, partly, or not at all.
About 20 per cent reported watching part of one of the videos, and another 5 per cent said they’d watched at least one to the end. People in these groups were more likely to be male, Christian and unemployed, to watch more TV than average, and to have a higher lifetime experience of violence.
Nearly 3000 of the participants also agreed to write about their motivations for watching, stopping watching, or avoiding the videos altogether.
Many who fully or partially watched the videos said that they wanted to gain information and verify that the videos existed, or wanted to satisfy their curiosity about what was in them. People who stopped watching part way through or who avoided the videos reported that they did so mostly for emotional reasons – (it was “too sad”, for example) – or because they didn’t want to feel that they were supporting ISIS by watching the footage.
A year after the participants gave these responses, they completed more online surveys, and the researchers found that those who’d watched at least part of a video had higher levels of distress and a greater fear of future negative events compared with those that hadn’t watched one. These relationships held after controlling for prior distress, lifetime exposure to violence and prior fear of negative events.
The longitudinal nature of the study – with important psychological data gathered well before the videos were released, as well as afterwards – gives the researchers’ confidence in their conclusion: that “watching graphic coverage may exacerbate preexisting fears and increase psychological symptomatology, demonstrating the negative psychological impact of viewing graphic media produced by terrorists.” As Redmond and her colleagues further note, the findings also imply that “watching such coverage may assist terrorists in achieving their goal of instilling fear.”
Previous research into why people watch gruesome or scary videos has focused on fictional material. To the researchers’ knowledge, this is the first study to explore not only what percentage of people in the general population choose to watch videos of graphic real-life violence, but also why – and what the psychological effects might be.
The work raises some important questions, not least: how should news programmes handle coverage of such horrific events? Running the beheading footage in full on a mainstream news channel would have been unthinkable. But was the storm of coverage alluding to the content really necessary? It may have prompted many people – especially those with pre-existing fears – to want to see the full footage for themselves, potentially worsening their anxiety, which, the researchers suggest, may have had the ironic effect of making them more likely to seek out other, similar kinds of distressing footage in future. Understanding how to prevent such a “spiral of fear” will be an important topic for further research in the area.