Tag Archives: dialogues about school shootings

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.

Debating School Shootings: What YouTube Reveals

In this post, I want to highlight the usefulness of appropriating the video-sharing/social media website YouTube to study people’s understandings of school shootings. Comments on this website offer a ‘snapshot’ — they are not a comprehensive representation, given their limited space and people’s selectiveness of what they choose to write — into people’s perceptions both at the time of the school shooting incidents and periods afterwards. Notably, YouTube is an auspicious site for debates amongst users, given its relatively simple interface, some degree of anonymity for users and threads of comments. YouTube has already been the subject of analysis in only a handful of school shooting related studies. (1)

What makes YouTube particularly compelling for researchers is that it allows for people’s true feelings about the perpetrators and the shootings to be expressed without any censoring — the only exception to this would be flagging comments as ‘spam, but those can still be read anyway by clicking on the ‘show’ link. This would not be the case with other avenues of public discussion, for example ‘letters to the editor’ sent to news media outlets, as these go through an editorial process like other news content. It also gives an insight into the particular language used to describe school shootings and their perpetrators. The downside to that is that commentators sometimes use ‘colourful’ language, poor grammar and post in a ‘rant’ like format. On some occasions, users may be internet trolls deliberately engaging in debates with shocking or offensive to get a reaction from others.

Bockler and Seeger (2) sought out users expressing admiration for school shooters and thereafter interviewed them to find out why they felt this way. In the blogs posted on the 25th and 29th of June 2014, I discussed the feelings expressed on YouTube about school shooters, with dangerous principles, such as the ‘revenge and bullying theory’ and admiration for school shooters, being advanced by users. Extrapolating from this material, I designed a threat assessment model to be used to analyse material posted online about school shootings — refer back to the post published on the 16th July 2014 for a reminder of this. As documented in the blog posted on the 2 July 2014, the main problem with YouTube, however, is that it is nothing is really known about users except what they post and it is questionable how much of that is actually true. This means that the threat assessment model I proposed would be most effective when it is coupled with offline behaviours and threats, requiring a deeper analysis of users’ lives.

The study by Lindgren (3) examined patterns in school shooting discussions, discovering that monthly comments on videos would increase exponentially following a notable incident (i.e. high media coverage). Accordingly, this was something I noticed in my own research examining comments from June 2012-June 2013: activity peaked after high-profile mass shooting incidents at the Aurora Theatre, Colorado and Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut. The resulting dialogues focused on a myriad of blame factors for these incidents occurring: gun laws, violent entertainment media, bullying, high school culture, the wider culture and the parents of perpetrators. Interestingly, it seemed to be a common acceptance amongst YouTube users that school shooters tend to be male, with some disputing essentialist notions of masculinity like sexual and athletic prowess, and the use of weapons — the blog posted on 11th of June 2014 spoke about the gendered nature of school shootings.

To sum up, future research should aim to utilise this research tool to examine dialogues between users as they unfold. Doing so will help capture the voice of the general public in how they react to school shooters and the way they make sense of incidents — this will then facilitate attempts to reduce the problem, particularly in trying to deter those who express admiration for school shooters.

[This blog was put together by looking at previous research linking YouTube and school shootings and my past blog entries falling under the same purview. The next two blog postings will examine gun legislation suggested as ways to reduce school shootings.]

  • Böckler, N. and T. Seeger (2013) ‘Revolution of the Dispossessed: School Shooters and their Devotees on the Web.’ In Böckler, T. Seeger, P. Sitzer and W. Heitmeyer (eds.) (2013) School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies and Concepts for Prevention. New York: Springer Science + Business Media, 309-339.

Lindgren, S. (2011) ‘YouTube Gunmen? Mapping participatory media discourse on school shooting videos.’ Media, Culture, Society 33, 123-136.

  • Böckler, N. and T. Seeger (2013) ‘Revolution of the Dispossessed: School Shooters and their Devotees on the Web.’ In Böckler, T. Seeger, P. Sitzer and W. Heitmeyer (eds.) (2013) School Shootings: International Research, Case Studies and Concepts for Prevention. New York: Springer Science + Business Media, 309-339.
  • Lindgren, S. (2011) ‘YouTube Gunmen? Mapping participatory media discourse on school shooting videos.’ Media, Culture, Society 33, 123-136.