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on security

Nov 6, 2014 | 09:00 GMT

7 mins read

Cutting Through Hysteria

VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor

In the past we have written about terror magnifiers — factors that amplify the impact of a terrorist attack. One of these magnifiers is media coverage. The proliferation of 24-hour television news networks and the increasing ubiquity of Internet connectivity have allowed the media to broadcast terrorist attacks live and in their entirety. This allowed vast numbers of people to watch live as the World Trade Center towers collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001 and as teams of gunmen ran amok in Mumbai in November 2008.

This exposure allows people to stay informed about events as they unfold, but it also makes them witnesses and secondary victims of the violence. As the word indicates, the intent of "terrorism" is to create terror in a target audience. Media coverage expands the audience affected by an attack far beyond those that happen to be in its immediate vicinity.

But traditional media is not the only terror magnifier. Social media is rapidly coming into its own as a powerful amplifying force. For example, during the Oct. 22 shootings at the Canadian War memorial and Parliament in Ottawa, a number of false reports on Twitter said that multiple gunmen were responsible for the attacks. There were even reports of shots being fired at other sites and of police killing another gunman.

Government actions and statements also have the potential to amplify the impact of terrorist methods. This is the case when governments issue false terror alerts or when politicians attempt to hype threats of unlikely scenarios for political gain such as Mexican drug cartels working with jihadist groups.

Terrorism, however, is not the only arena in which these magnifiers have the potential to create panic. Lately there has been a great deal of public fear generated over the Ebola virus. This is not only due to CNN and other news channels obsessively focusing on Ebola, but also because it has gone viral on social media. Politicians, too, are hyping the situation, and governments are panicking over the virus and making decisions that have little to no basis in science.

The Consequences of Panic

Hyped-up, irrational fear has a great impact on populations and on the governments that represent them. It causes needless, wasteful spending and poor policy decisions. Because of the hyped-up image of al Qaeda that was fed to the public — and the fear that hype created — the U.S. government spent billions of dollars to create bloated, redundant bureaucracies that were never needed, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Al Qaeda was whittled down to size by existing counterterrorism agencies before these bureaucracies were ever really fully operational.

Regarding Ebola, baseless panic has led many governments to impose travel restrictions that are not recommended by the World Health Organization. These knee-jerk decisions not only have the potential to do more economic damage to the affected region, but they can also serve to dissuade volunteers from traveling to West Africa to help combat the disease at its source, something that is counterproductive to bringing the current Ebola outbreak to a halt.

Hyped-up, irrational fear can also prompt individuals to make poor decisions. A great number of people spent a great deal of money preparing for the "Y2K" disaster that never came. They were left with a pile of gear that was never used and cases of MREs that were never eaten. Watching an episode of the television show "Doomsday Preppers" can show how harmful irrational fear can be to the lives of individuals.

This, however, is not to say that no preparations should be made. As we have written for many years, it is quite important for people to have personal, family and corporate contingency plans in case of a natural disaster, major industrial accident or terrorist attack. But you cannot let fear of the fictional zombie apocalypse dictate every aspect of your life.

Hyped-up, irrational fears can also cause corporations and non-governmental organizations to make bad decisions. For example, on Oct. 17, a nursing assistant in Dallas was sent home from work by her employer over Ebola fears because her daughter from Kenya had visited her for two days. Kenya is currently free of Ebola and is farther away from Liberia than is Brazil. In another recent Ebola and Kenya-related irrational panic case, a teacher at a school in Louisville, Kentucky, was forced to resign from her job after returning from a medical missionary trip to the country when parents expressed fears over Ebola.

How to Cut the Hype

The most important antidote to hype is information. For example, Ebola is a frightening disease, but it must be kept in perspective. So far in the current outbreak, there have been only an estimated 13,042 cases of Ebola, and fewer than 5,000 deaths from those cases. There has only been one Ebola death in the United States. Compare that to influenza, which from 1976 to 2007 killed an average of 23,607 people every year in the United States alone. These numbers are all dwarfed by the millions of people who die every year from large-scale killers such as heart disease, cancer and dysentery. But because people are used to cancer, heart disease and dysentery, they see these diseases as less exotic. As a result, there is less fear of those diseases in spite of the fact that, every year, they kill millions more than the Ebola virus.

Another important antidote for hype is maintaining the correct mindset. It is important to for people to be mindful of the fact that the world is a dangerous place and that there are bad people, terrible diseases and horrific natural disasters that can and will strike people somewhere every day. But people should not live their lives in fear and paranoia because of these threats. Fear and paranoia not only rob people of the joy of life, but they are also detrimental to good security. A person who is burned out due to fear and paranoia cannot maintain good situational awareness or security habits.

Practitioners of terrorism lose a great deal of their ability to sow hysteria if the people they are attempting to terrorize do not become hysterical.

The final antidote was brilliantly articulated by comedian Bob Newhart in a skit he did in which he played a psychologist treating people with irrational fears. Newhart articulated this remedy in two words: "Stop it!" "Are you worried about catching Ebola on the subway in New York?" "Stop it!" "Are you concerned that there are swarms of lone wolf terrorists waiting to attack soft targets in the West?" "Stop it!"

Groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State are masters of terrorist theater. They understand how to generate fear and how to use terror magnifiers to multiply the impact of their efforts. Many times, they even succeed in causing mass hysteria through empty threats or botched attacks. But as we have long noted, practitioners of terrorism lose a great deal of their ability to sow hysteria if the people they are attempting to terrorize do not become hysterical.

Terrorism is a fact of life and will continue to be so. This is because there is a wide variety of groups that practice it and seek to use violence as a means of influencing the behavior of a government — either their own or someone else's. Terrorist attacks are also very easy to conduct, especially if the assailant is not concerned about eluding capture. Finally, it is impossible to protect everything, so there is a large number of vulnerable targets in every country. This means that some terrorist attacks will invariably succeed

The way in which people react to successful attacks — whether with a sober, measured response or with irrational hysteria — defines whether an attack has been successful as an act of terrorist theater. It will also help guard against costly and ineffective policy decisions. The same holds true for our response to diseases such as Ebola. A sober and calm response will help guard against needless measures that bear human, as well as financial costs.

Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor's analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.

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