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Friday, February 16, 2018

Does Celebrity Culture Contribute to Mass Violence?

By constantly focusing on these individuals and their heinous acts, we make the tragedy about the perpetrator, cementing their celebrity status.

In the aftermath of events like the mass shooting in Florida, there is always a search for “the solution,” an effort to impose meaning on senseless tragedy. Even before the state of emergency had been ended, the all-too-familiar cries had already been raised on the news and social media outlets: “something is wrong with our culture” and “somebody needs to do something.”

Depending on your political ideology, the “something” wrong with our culture that “somebody” must fix is gun control, psychotropic medication, the mental health system, or the criminal justice system. However, there is another potential cause that has received little attention, and that is how we ourselves respond to these tragedies.

In the aftermath of every mass shooting, there is one commonality: the focus placed upon the culprit. The murderers behind Aurora, Newtown, Charleston, and now Parkland, Florida, all received celebrity-level attention in the wake of their crimes. However, by giving them this attention, by allowing their names and faces to dominate our newsfeeds for weeks, possibly even months or years after their crimes, it is likely that we are actively contributing to a cycle that will only lead to more tragedy.

The Power of Celebrity

It doesn’t take a social scientist to see the influence celebrities wield in our culture. We are constantly inundated with the everyday details of the lives of Kardashians, Winters, Pratts, Pines, Hemsworths, and dozens of other celebrities. Even the smallest part of celebrities’ lives is enough to generate a massive amount of social media buzz, from the food they eat to the clothes they wear. These celebrities are the trendsetters, from Kanye West’s sunglasses to Kim Kardashian’s recent eschewing of pants.

As long as you can get attention — any sort of attention — you too can become a celebrity. Beyond fashion, celebrities also have the ability to influence many people’s behavior, a phenomenon which has only intensified since the advent of social media. Many celebrities, like Logan Paul and Justin Bieber, started their careers not as wealthy socialites or actors, but as “viral stars,” whose popularity was defined by the likes and shares they received on social media.

Now, to be a “celebrity,” one needs do little more than spend some time in the public eye, even if this time is earned by indulging in something as ludicrous as the recent Tide Pod challenge, or as loathsome as Logan Paul’s recent suicide forest video. As long as you can get attention — any sort of attention — you too can become a celebrity, and, through that status, you can influence people for better or for worse.

Why Celebrity Matters

The power of celebrity is derived from what psychologist Abraham Maslow identified as a fundamental human drive: the need to belong. As social creatures, humans have a basic desire to be affiliated with and accepted by a group. Like most social primates, we have an innate ability to identify group leaders and seek approval by imitating them. This is the source of celebrity mystique — they are our social leaders, and we hope to share in the fame they garner by doing as they do.

Some individuals derive more than the usual satisfaction of their need to belong from celebrities. For most of us, celebrity influence will often manifest in mostly innocuous forms: perhaps an embarrassing fashion choice or “shipping” a clearly disastrous celebrity couple. In some cases, however, celebrity influence can go very, very wrong. Exhibiting what is called a “pathological preoccupation,” some individuals derive more than the usual satisfaction of their need to belong from celebrities.

These individuals feel a deep sense of connection with celebrities, who they feel are somehow similar to them or would understand them more than other people, which often leads to an unhealthy obsession with said celebrity. Research indicates that for some individuals, this obsession is enough that they would be willing to violate fundamental social norms — even commit crimes — to garner that celebrity’s approval and share in their fame. Combine this pathological preoccupation with our society’s already prevalent need for validation, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Celebrity and Suicide

One of the darker ways that celebrities’ influence has been seen in social science is in the arena of imitative suicide. Dubbed “the Werther effect,” the suicide of a celebrity is often accompanied by a surge in the overall suicide rate, seemingly born from a desire to imitate the celebrity.

Alex Mesoudi stresses the need to limit the coverage of suicides lest celebrity-worshippers draw inspiration to end their own lives. Research indicates that those most at risk of falling prey to this phenomenon are those with some level of the aforementioned pathological preoccupation. This, in turn, has led some to call for a change in how communities and media sources respond to suicide.

In a 2009 study, psychologist Alex Mesoudi specifically stresses the need to limit the coverage of suicides, and to take pains to avoid romanticizing the tragedy, lest celebrity-worshippers draw inspiration to end their own lives out of a misguided attempt to capitalize on the departed celebrity’s fame.

Celebrity and Mass Killing

Despite this research, there has been little effort within the American journalistic community to codify how journalists respond to suicide, and there has definitely been no attempt to take these warnings to heart when it comes to mass killing. Less than four hours after the tragedy in Florida, news outlets were furiously speculating about and investigating the killer; his motives, his ethnic heritage, his family life, his social media presence. No stone in his life was left unturned.

We make the killer a celebrity, and we are giving them the “likes” and “shares” to prove it. This is far from unique to the Florida tragedy. In the wake of their horrific acts, mass killers always become the center of attention, even when efforts are made to deliberately avoid this occurrence.

A powerful example of this was seen in 2015 when, despite Sheriff John Hanlin’s plea not to focus on the perpetrator after a shooting at an Oregon community college, Wolf Blitzer still smugly announced that CNN could reveal (and speculate about) the murderer’s identity and motives. Celebrity will not be denied.

By constantly focusing on these individuals and their heinous acts, rather than focusing on the tragedies themselves, we make the tragedy about the perpetrator. We make the killer a celebrity, and we are giving them the “likes” and “shares” to prove it.

Even worse, by giving them this celebrity status, we set the stage for future imitators. Pathological celebrity-worshippers will see the attention these individuals get, they will take note of the celebrity status these actions led to, and they will seek to share in that fame by imitating their murderous acts, as was seen in the aftermath of the Columbine Tragedy.

What to Do about It

“Someone” doesn’t need to do “something.” We must stop participating.

Though psychologists dub these celebrity-worshippers “pathological,” this is not merely an issue of mental health. Celebrity worship is a function of the fundamental human need to belong, and in the current era of social media and viral videos, this need has only grown stronger. As fame has become more accessible, we have become more addicted to it.

The solution to this problem will not be found in a ban or in a government initiative. The solution is, as is so often the case, a matter of individual self-regulation — of personal responsibility.

“Someone” doesn’t need to do “something.” We must stop participating in a media cycle that turns murderers into celebrities, thereby continuing their cycle of violence. Until we do, tragedies like the one in Florida may never become a thing of the past.

  • Aaron Pomerantz is a social psychologist and doctoral candidate at the University of Oklahoma, where he studies culture, the legal system, and the psychology of religion.