Social Media, Violence and the Herostatus Syndrome
We are at the nexus of both a very new and a very old phenomena regarding violence in our society. In trying to make sense of recent shooting incidents it may be helpful to consider the intersection of both ancient and modern dynamics and drivers of violent behavior. The relationship between violence and social media of course is not causal, but I would suggest social media and the quick and easy means of self-broadcasting may not simply be adding fuel to the fire, but perhaps adding rocket fuel.
Be they the Unabomber, Virginia Tech’s Seung-Hui Cho or Vester Flanagan, the most recent inductee into the “Hall of Herostratus,” the need to publish the now de rigueur manifesto, send letters and tapes to media outlets, or post rants along with images and videos taken before, during and after extreme violence, has ancient roots.
The first inductee to the “Hall” was Herostratus himself, for whom the Herostratus Syndrome is named. A “nobody” in the society of Greece 356 BCE, Herostratus burned down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Wonders of the Ancient World, and a great source of cultural pride. His explanation to the authorities of the day: he wanted to be famous;
He wanted the world to know his name. Over time the name, Herostratus has become a metonym for someone who commits a criminal act in order to become famous; to become someone by violent means when no other route to glory seems possible.
One of the earliest discussions of the “Herostratos Syndrome” was in a New York Evening Post editorial after the assassination of President James A. Garfield in 1881. The editorialist attributed the need to be known and rise above the masses through an act of infamy, to the American system of business and education that promised that everyone could succeed. Those who did not succeed were seen both by others and self as damaged and deficient. To those who did not rise to the top, the blame could be projected on others who didn’t give them a fair chance. Even thousands of years ago it seems that for those so predisposed, the driving force was a pathological need to be recognized no matter what, and a desire to seek vengeance on those who may have blocked the path to success and happiness.
In his manifesto, ABC reports that Flanagan wrote, “[I] tried to pull myself up by the bootstraps, but the damage was already done and when someone gets to this point, there is nothing that can be said or done to change their sadness to happiness.” Flanagan was hurt, he perceived himself the victim, and smoldered with anger toward those around him whom he believed had stepped over him, around him and on him. And he wanted everyone to know of this injustice, and to know his wrath.
Although cases of this sort seem to flash through our collective consciousness and the media cycle so quickly, it was in May 2014 that 22-year old Elliot Rodger, driven by similar dynamics killed six and injured fourteen before committing suicide near the University of California campus in Santa Barbara. Between the time he stabbed three men to death at his apartment and moving on to shoot three women at a sorority house, Rodgers made time to uploaded a video to YouTube, titled “Elliot Rodger’s Retribution,” outlining his attack plan and his motivations: a desire to punish women for rejecting him, and a desire to punish other young men for living a more sexually active and enjoyable life than his.
Likewise, Cho paused from his murderous rampage at Virginia Tech just long enough to go to the post office and mail his videos and writings to the major network news outlets. His rage at young women who rejected him and at male classmates who kept him on the outside would be known by all.
Social media is a Herostratic’s dream. For the brittle personality, the “injustice collector,” the nameless, faceless loser. The ability and allure to curate one’s legacy is irresistible.
To control the narrative and content, the timing, and ability to reach an audience of potentially millions within moments provides the contemporary Herostratus with nearly everything he might desire, except of course, success and acceptance. Herostratus was an arsonist, his weapon was fire. Social media has become an accelerant to the Herostratic fire, fanning the flames, stoking the psychological coals of smoldering anger and resentment.
The intersection of social media, violence and Herostratic tendencies is an evolution in violence, and this evolution won’t be televised, it will be downloaded and streamed. Graphic imagery is now instantly available; video captured during and in the immediate wake of violence, accessible on your phone, your tablet, your desktop. And, I believe this accelerant will not only hasten and intensify the individual act of violence, but shorten the timeline between violent events.
In the recent study about contagion in mass shootings published in July 2015, “Contagion in Mass Killings and School Shootings”[i] the authors find, “…significant evidence that mass killings involving firearms are incented similar events in the immediate past.” The study reports that mass shootings now occur on average every two weeks in the U.S., while school shootings occur on average monthly. The most important finding by my estimation is that there is a measurable contagion effect over the first thirteen days after a violent incident. Instantaneous, viral exposure to new incidents of violence may likely exacerbate contagion. Infamy is now immediate; there is no need to even wait for the evening news.
The association between workplace and school violence, and the “loner” is well established in our thinking. At greatest risk may not simply be the “loner,” but rather the “incompetent joiner,” he who cannot, for a variety of reasons, break into social circles at work or school. That person who feels like a nobody, unappreciated, treated unfairly, but who also possesses that burning drive for recognition now has a new set of tools. For the modern Herostratus, cast aside by classmates, co-workers, supervisors and society, there has never been a faster track to the headlines
This, of course, should not be overgeneralized. Social media, as I have mentioned, does not cause mass shootings. Social media does give wings to the few who manifest these traits and furthers the ability to go out in a blaze of glory in front of the widest audience possible. I believe the speed and scope of self-broadcasting, something more specific that simply citizen journalism, especially as it may intersect with the risk of contagion, is a serious concern.
Social media + the Herostratus syndrome + contagion may be a very dangerous formula indeed. I worry that it may be the formula for the rocket fuel that may take this type of violence to an entirely new level.
[i] Towers S, Gomez-Lievano A, Khan M, Mubayi A, Castillo-Chavez C (2015) Contagion in Mass Killings and School Shootings. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0117259. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0117259