An Analysis on How Terrorists Use the Media
Prepared by and with permission of
COMM/PBRL 3013 — Mass Media and Public Opinion
Mount Saint Vincent University
April 18, 2018
Terrorists use the media to communicate their message and instill fear in large numbers of people. Mass media comes in forms of broadcasting, social media, print, radio, and more, and aids to achieve terrorism’s goal of fear in a very involuntary way. The media’s job is to distribute information that the public should know, to keep them informed about the world around them, but also to keep the public’s interest. Everything that could mean something to anyone is distributed through the media, that of which includes acts of terrorism. The cycle repeats itself more often than not. Terrorists will commit an act of terrorism at an increased level and specific area that will grab the media’s attention. The media then distributes the message that acts of terrorism are taking place or have taken place, which then creates a blanket of fear over a large number of people. This process can be analyzed through the Hypodermic Needle Theory. The theory expresses how the media can have such a direct and influential effect on its audiences that cause them to feel or act a certain way. Terrorists use the media as a means of influencing fear into its audience. The media displays the influence that causes fear, but the terrorist control it.
Media: The main means of mass communication (broadcasting, publishing, and the internet) regarded collectively.
(Oxford Dictionaries, 2018)
Mass Media: Newspapers, magazines, film, television, radio, advertising, book publishing, the internet and popular music
(Gasher, Skinner, and Lormier, 2016, p. 380)
Terrorist: a person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.
(Oxford Dictionaries, 2018)
Hypodermic Needle Theory: the theory suggests that the mass media could influence a very large group of people directly and uniformly by ‘shooting’ or ‘injecting’ them with appropriate messages designed to trigger a desired response.
(University of Twente, 2017)
Fake News: false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political vie or as a joke.
(Cambridge Dictionary, 2018)
Mass media is the result of many advances in communications technology. Mass media is newspapers, magazines, film, television, radio, advertising, book publishing, the internet and popular music (Gasher, Skinner, and Lormier, 2016, p. 380). These are forms of communication that allow information to reach mass numbers of people all around the world. Mass media has helped create the global village – “the sense in which the possibility of instantaneous communication makes societies seem closer together” (p. 379). Countries on the other side of the world feel closer to us than they are when tragedy strikes and their news is plastered over every form of media we have access to. Media makes the world feel smaller, the people feel more connected, and world issues feel more personal.
The media aids greatly in delivering a message to a large number of people, because of the advanced tools for communicating the message, and the ways that they create a story line, an image, and a sense of discussion. Terrorism uses mass media to do exactly that. When analyzing how terrorists use the media to deliver the message of fear, it is clear that they mirror the “Hypodermic Needle Theory.” The University of Twente says “the theory suggests that the mass media could influence a very large group of people directly and uniformly by ‘shooting’ or ‘injecting’ them with appropriate messages designed to trigger a desired response” (University of Twente, 2017). The definition of terrorism, defined by NATO, is “the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence, instilling fear and terror, against individuals or property in an attempt to coerce or intimidate governments or societies, or to gain control over a population, to achieve political, religious or ideological objectives” (2016).
When the idea of terrorism is integrated into the Hypodermic Needle Theory the result is the reality of what goes on in the present day. The idea of how terrorists use the media to spread a message is perfectly described when the two are intertwined – “Terrorists influence a very large group of people uniformly and directly through the media by ‘shooting’ or ‘injecting’ them with appropriate messages designed to trigger fear and terror.” Simply, terrorists use the media to spread a message that instills fear and terror, and the media delivers it to the world with the desire to keep them informed – only continuing a cycle of fear that proves success for the agenda of terrorism.
This paper is an analysis of how terrorist use the media to spread their messages and agendas across the globe to large groups of people. By analyzing terrorists and the media through the lens of the Hypodermic Needle Theory, the paper will aid in the explanation and further understanding of how terrorists achieve their goal of instilling fear and disrupting the illusion of safety, through mass media.
Hypodermic Needle Theory
As described earlier the Hypodermic Needle Theory is a theory that “suggests the mass media could influence a very large group of people directly and uniformly by ‘shooting’ or ‘injecting’ them with appropriate messages designed to trigger a desired response” (University of Twente, 2017). This theory was first developed in the 1930’s as a result of how mass media was being used to mass communicate and display propaganda techniques to large audiences (Communications Studies, 2018, par. 2).
Communications Studies describing the Hypodermic Needle Theory, says that “the theory implies that the media has the power to force highly influential messages into passive and susceptible audiences” (2018, par. 2). This is partially true today. When it comes to certain topics, the media is capable of manipulating the minds of uneducated or uninformed people. For example, a new trend in today’s media is the spread of fake news. Fake news can be displayed on many different media platforms but commonly on social media, the radio, and podcasts. These are platforms that only give little bits of information on news stories that are very large in scale or are completely fake. Uneducated and/or uninformed people become aware of the stories from these different types of information sources and take them at face value. There is very little to no extra research conducted and audiences will believe it as true no matter whose reporting it or what purpose they have to speak about it.
The implication that mass media is capable of forcing highly influential messages into passive audiences is proved to be partially true today, when it is looked at from the perspective of how terrorists use the media. No matter how informed or educated a person can be, fear is one thing that we all know and understand. Terrorists spread fear, and they use the media to help them do so. So, depending on the context of the information or message that is being spread, not all audiences have to be passive or susceptible to be highly influenced by the media.
Another implication of the Hypodermic Needle Theory is “the effects of the media’s messages are immediate and powerful, capable of causing significant behavioral changes in humans” (Communications Studies, 2018, par. 4). This implication can be partially true, for the same reason before. Possibly even more true than the first assumption analyzed, this idea proves true in many cases of mass media use. Due to high speed forms of communication, mass media is made possible. It is often almost completely in sync with the message it is displaying or delivering. Immediate past tense, is another way of explaining how fast the media displays stories and messages. SIL International (as cited in Dahl, 1985) says that it refers to “past tense that refers to a time considered very recent in relation to the moment of utterance” (2018). An intense feeling of consternation can sweep over large audiences that are being delivered critical and alarming news at high speeds. A form of news that would fall under this category would be acts of terrorism. A very accurate example to aid this statement would be what happened during the 9/11 terrorist attack on September 11th 2001. The media began broadcasting the story shortly after the first plane struck one of the twin towers, and then proceeded to broadcast while the second plane hit the other building. Those who watched the terrorist attack being broadcasted as it was happening – with only a few seconds of delay from reality to audio visual – were greatly affected by what they saw. The terrorist actions were displayed over the media in the most immediate form and triggered the desired reaction of fear within the large number of people watching it.
Terrorists and the Media
Terrorists are people with an agenda. Terrorism as described earlier by NATO is – “the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence, instilling fear and terror, against individuals or property in an attempt to coerce or intimidate governments or societies, or to gain control over a population, to achieve political, religious or ideological objectives” (2016). Whatever their agenda is, they accomplish it by spreading fear, creating corruption, and recruiting sympathisers to grow in numbers. They use the media to assist them in doing this in many ways. Terrorist use the media to get attention, cause fear, get their message out, create vulnerable sympathisers, and catalog their success. The media is a pawn in their chess game.
Attention. Terrorists use the media to get attention because without the media it would be very hard to analyze their effect across nations. It allows them to see how many people are aware of their actions, the reasons why they do it, and what they might plan to do next. If people are paying attention to them then they measure that as being effective. The media also displays various government reactions to acts of terrorism. This allows terrorists to see if they’re being effective on a level that requires government attention from around the world. Through the media they’re able to see if they’ve gained attention and fear among many countries, and if these countries have a plan to fight back. They also know when to commit their acts of terrorism. When there are too many stories being reported of terrorist acts for a long period of time, people start to fell numb to it and the sting effect is gone. However, when they commit large acts of terrorism and then slip under the radar for a while and then return with another, they continue to disrupt large audiences with their effect of shock and fear. Terrorists don’t do what they do and hope for no one to notice. They want a reaction from the world to know that their being effective and that people know who they are and what their goals are.
Fear. Terrorists use the media to create a large scale of fear around the world. They know they wouldn’t be effective if people and governments aren’t scared of them and aren’t aware of them. The best way for them to spread fear across large groups of people around the world is for the media to explain what they have done, why they did it, and what is on their agenda to do next. Fear can cripple people, throw them into a panic state, and cause them to think of the worst outcomes. Fear of terrorism doesn’t have this effect on all people, but a great deal of them are victim to these feelings. Without the fear factor terrorists wouldn’t be able to accomplish what they can.
Message. The media is the best way to spread a message of any kind. Due to the amount of advanced technology that they use to spread messages, information is able to be spread almost as fast as its created. This is why using the media is the best way for terrorists to spread their agenda and the message of fear. Without the media the public would be unaware of the terrorist’s actions and the purpose of why they do what they do, which ads into the fear factor. Spreading their message through the media aids them in their recruiting efforts.
Recruitment. The media subconsciously helps terrorists with their networking needs. Since the medias job is to report on world issues, they are obligated to inform people and report on terrorism. The media attempts to explain why the terrorists do what they do so their audience can understand it. Even though the media doesn’t attempt to justify the actions of terrorists as they attempt to explain them, the worldwide discussion acts as free advertisement. Terrorists try to recruit people that are vulnerable and are looking for a way and a reason to rebel and get revenge on the world. When the media explains the reasons for why the terrorist commit the crimes that they do, they create sympathisers out of people who have been looking for a way to commit hate crimes.
Success. The media helps the terrorists greatly with cataloging what they call their success. By reporting terrorists’ strikes, the media creates a way for the terrorists to analyze their success. They’re able to evaluate how much of an impact they had, and they have a point of reference to go back to if they ever need it. It also allows them to understand what they did right and what they did wrong. The media is too quick to announce why the terrorists committing the crime got caught or why their strike didn’t work. This information is valuable for terrorist groups and allows them to work on areas that they feel need improvement. As the media starts to create a crisis mode on numerous amounts of media platforms, they begin to display the effect that the terrorist had on the world. They even go as far as to interview witness’s moments after the event occurs. Some media even begin to post twitter comments on their platforms that show case how the world abroad is reacting to their actions. The media must report on these attacks even if they are aware of the aids that it gives to terrorist, because otherwise they would be creating censorship. However, the media’s actions do result in giving the terrorists the platform they need to and want to be effective.
Terrorists use the media to distribute their message to a large group of people. For terrorism to be effective there needs to be a sense randomness and unpredictability for it to achieve the “shock and awe” effect that is required for desired impact. While members of society can be critical of the media constantly reporting on terrorism, the reports – like a hypodermic needle – stings at first, but over display tends to cause numbness and desensitization to the audiences. This ultimately diffuses the terrorist’s desired effect of mass fear. However, terrorists have learned when to strike and when not to strike. They know when the time comes that will produce the biggest effect on the largest amount of people. Terrorists use the media in a constructed way that mirrors the Hypodermic Needle Theory – “they influence a very large group of people uniformly and directly through the media by ‘shooting’ or ‘injecting’ them with appropriate messages designed to trigger fear and terror” (Twente, 2017). The cycle of their media use continues as the media feels obligated to report on these issues, whether they feel they could be feeding into the terrorist’s desires or not. The media must make the public aware of these instances, but the result is that it creates fear, spreads their message and purpose, aids in recruiting vulnerable people, and provides them with a means for cataloging their success. By analyzing terrorists and the media through the lens of the Hypodermic Needle Theory, this analysis was created to aid in the explanation and further understanding of how terrorists achieve their goal of instilling fear and disrupting the illusion of safety, through the use of mass media. Terrorists use the media as a means of influencing fear into its audience. The media displays the influence that causes fear, but the terrorists will always control it.
Cambridge Dictionary. (2018). Meaning of Fake News in the English Dictionary. Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/fake-news
Gasher, M. Skinner, D. and Lormier, R. (2016). Mass Communication in Canada (8th ed.). Oxford University Press, p. 380.
NATO, International Military Staff. (2016). NATO’s military concept for defence against terrorism. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, paragraph 3. Retrieved from https://www.nato.int/cps/ic/natohq/topics_69482.htm
Osten, D. (1985) Tense and aspect systems. New York: Basil Blackwell, p. 127
Oxford Dictionaries. (2018). Definition of Media. Oxford English Living Dictionaries. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/media
Oxford Dictionaries. (2018). Definition of Terrorist. Oxford English Living Dictionaries. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/terrorist
SIL International. (2018). Immediate Past Tense. Glossary of Linguistic Terms. Retrieved from https://glossary.sil.org/term/immediate-past-tense
University of Twente. (2017). Hypodermic Needle Theory. Communications Studies Theories, paragraph 4. Retrieved from https://www.utwente.nl/en/bms/communication-theories/sorted-by-cluster/Mass%20Media/Hypodermic_Needle_Theory/