Copycat Threats: Real or Fake?

As documented in the last blog post, the highly publicised nature of school shootings means that they are prone to creating ‘copycats.’ The amount of threats made tends to increase exponentially following a previous attack. Copycatters may try to ‘out-do’ the previous school shooting with the intention of gaining more media attention. (1) The purpose of this blog post is to explore the distinction between the threats that are empty in nature, with the sole intention of gaining attention or causing trouble; compared to those that do actually pose serious danger.

In the book The Copycat Effect, the author attributes copycatting to “thoughtless, sensational media,” claiming coverage of high-profile incidents like school shootings triggers a series of copycat attacks. Further to this, it is argued that the news media insidiously deflects any culpability for this, by instead discussing other ‘blame factors,’ such as violent video games or school culture. (2) The last blog post debated the extent to which the news media are to blame and questioned how credible this explanation really was when taken in isolation.

An important point to remember about the ‘copycat’ explanation is that the recognition to be ‘gained’ from media attention is not a sufficient enough reason for someone to carry out a school shooting. Notably, it is likely that carrying out an attack following a previous high-profile school shooting would keep the issue salient in the news for a while longer; yet, it would not guarantee particular notoriety for that particular incident. In fact, it would likely mean a discussion about school shootings in general or comparing and contrasting the two incidents that had occurred within a short period of time. Extrapolating from this means there must be additional motivating factors for copycatters whose massacres actually transpire; herein lies the basis for testing the credibility of threats made.

Every threat should be examined — even when claimed to be said in ‘humour’ or a moment of anger — because school shootings and other attacks do occur. When a copycat threat is made following a high profile incident, the threat itself, the context in which it was made and the threatener must all be critically assessed. Examining the content within the threat and its context gives some indication of its risk level: Does the threat give specific details, such as a location, methods (e.g. bombing or shooting), date and time? To who was the threat made and is this someone the threatener is likely to confide in? Was the threat said in a moment of emotional distress? Was the threat made repeatedly? Coupling this with information about the person(s) making the threat should provide a fuller picture: Does the threatener have the ability to carry out the threat? Is the threatener suffering from any personal problems and/or mental health issues that have been altering their recent behaviour? Do they have a motive and desire to follow through with the threat? Have those closest to the threatener noticed any changes in behaviour and/or similar threats being made? Is there any evidence of plans being plan to carry out the attack (e.g. purchasing firearms)?

Taking all that into consideration should go some way to fundamentally distinguishing between genuine and fake threats. A disingenuous copycat threat is likely to be said for a variety of reasons: gaining attention, attempting to be ‘humorous’ or controversial or perhaps intimidation of the school and people within it. A copycat threat where the threatener intends to follow through could be seen as a pre-warning to an attack.

[This blog was put together using relevant literature and threat assessment knowledge. The next post will continue this theme by looking at a recent case involving female copycatters.]

(1) Newman, K. S., Fox, C., Harding, D. J., Mehta, J. and Roth, W. (2004) Rampage: the social roots of school shootings. Basic Books: New York, 154, 250.
(2) Coleman, L. (2004) The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow’s Headlines. London, New York: Paraview Pocket Books.

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