Mass Killers and Communication, June 17, 2015

Dylann Storm Roof, 21, has been arrested the perpetrator of a mass shooting at a church in Charleston, SC. Roof created an online manifesto declaring his hatred for African Americans.

This targeting is similar to the actions of George Hennard, perpetrator of the 1991 mass shooting at Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, that left 23 dead. Well before his crime, Hennard complained to the FBI about being the victim of a “conspiracy of white women.” While carrying out the attack, Hennard shouted that it was his response to what the women of his town “had done” to him.

Compounding this latest tragedy, Roof’s friends heard him make threats and one hid his gun from him for a day. In short, those closest to Roof knew there was something wrong and took what they believed were appropriate measures. Still, those measures were insufficient to stop another mass killing. See below a post I wrote during my graduate studies addressing the 2011 Tucson mass shooting. In it, I reference Anatomy of a Massacre, a book I wrote on the 1991 mass shooting at Luby’s Cafeteria, America’s worst such attack until the 2007 incident at Virginia Tech.

“Mass Killers and Communication”

Posted January 13, 2011

Mass killers are communicators. They communicate their anger, their disconnection from reality, their progress toward violence. They communicate vividly and frequently. They find audiences who receive and understand their messages. And despite their prodigious output of warning signs and pronouncements, mass killers go unchecked. This is the ultimate lesson of the attack in Tucson that killed six people and wounded 13 including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

In 1993, I wrote Anatomy of a Massacre, a true-crime book about what was then the worst mass shooting in American history: George Hennard’s attack on Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, TX, October 16, 1991, that left 23 dead. Hennard was a communicator, as was Jared Loughner, perpetrator of the Tucson mass shooting. Hennard exhibited bizarre, threatening behavior in the lead-up to his crimes. He stalked a family–Jane Bugg and her daughters, Jill and Jana–who lived down the street from his parent’s home where he was living alone. Jane’s complaints to local police brought no official action.

Hennard made his own complaints to law enforcement. He reported to the FBI that “a secret group of white women” had formed a nationwide conspiracy against him. He made a pilgrimage to the site of the San Ysidro McDonald’s where James Huberty set the previous mass shooting victim record at 21. He voiced his hatreds, paranoia and speculation about killing people to those around him. His physician father openly deemed him mentally ill.

Still, nothing happened to stop Hennard. He drove his pickup truck through Luby’s front window at lunch hour, exited the vehicle, and began firing on the building’s occupants with two 9mm pistols. Five minutes later, several police officers engaged Hennard in a gun battle. Twelve minutes later, he was dead in the restaurant’s back hallway. Twenty-three innocent people had been fatally shot with approximately 40 wounded.

Hennard communicated the outcome of Oct. 16, 1991, to anyone who would pay attention. Huberty communicated his instability and intent as well. So did Charles Whitman, the sniper atop the University of Texas tower, who killed 16 people in 1966. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the mass killers at Columbine High School, documented their threats and early dangerous acts online. Seung Hui Cho, who exceeded Hennard’s death toll by killing 32 at Virginia Tech, was a known menace to family, students, teachers and authorities. Nidal Hasan, murderer of 13 at Fort Hood not far from the location of Hennard’s attack, recurrently expressed extremist views and sent intercepted e-mails to terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki.

And now we hear the all-too-familiar story of Jared Loughner, his ominous behavior, his outbursts, his YouTube video speaking of genocide. In Comm 4144 at University of Denver, we are currently studying communication models. Emulating flow charts, they track the path and effect of communications. Repeatedly, the communication model for mass killers is: Source–>Message–>Receiver–>Tragedy

It’s time for a new model.

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Adversarial Advertising

Edgy ads are a staple of advertising, attempting to break through the communication clutter and jolt the viewer. As Tom Altstiel and Jean Grow point out in Advertising Creative, edgy ads risk offending the general audience to appeal to the target audience, deliberately driving “a wedge” between the audiences. Altstiel and Grow warn about going too far, which two recent campaigns have done.

Protein World. UK-based supplement company Protein World launched a display advertising campaign in the London subway system asking “Are You Beach Body Ready?” (Note: linked article contains photos of protest signage with blunt language.) A gorgeous, toned blonde in a yellow bikini dominates the design. Thematically similar “get ready for summer” ads have been standard issue for diet products, fitness clubs and plastic surgeons for decades; however, this ad struck a nerve, triggering a social media backlash punctuated by poster defacing and public protests. Global news media seized on the controversy.

Protein World struck a defiant tone on Twitter, using the hashtag #getagrip and retweeting supportive posts from British TV personality Katie Hopkins who called protestors “feminazis,” “chubsters,” and “fat.” After the company declared the ad would remain, it was pulled when the Advertising Standards Authority announced an investigation to determine if the campaign “breaks harm or offense rules or is socially irresponsible.”

Bud Light. As part of its “Up for Whatever” marketing campaign, Bud Light shipped bottles with labels featuring the tagline: “The Perfect Beer for Removing ‘No’ from Your Vocabulary for the Night.”

As seen with Protein World’s campaign, digital protests arose, saying the tagline encouraged rape culture and flew in the face of the “No Means No” campaign to stem sexual assaults on college campuses. Also in parallel, major media covered the controversy. However, Anheuser-Busch deviated from Protein World by being contrite instead of defiant, issuing a public apology and terminating production of the offending labels.

Many asked, “Wasn’t anyone paying attention before printing the labels?” The Wall Street Journal reports that the tagline passed through five levels of review including ad agency BBDO, multiple corporate departments at parent company AB InBev, and the U.S. Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

In the end… will the backlash hurt Protein World and Bud Light? Protein World recorded a sales jump amid the news coverage. Bud Light saw its “buzz” score drop, clouding its summer sales season to be kicked off by a “Whatever, USA” event on Catalina Island, California. Revenue and regulation will be the ultimate determinants, with bad PR known to affect both negatively.

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ISIS and the Media War

The Brookings Institute has published “The ISIS Twitter census: Defining and describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter.”  Key findings include:

  • At least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters
  • Typical ISIS supporters were located within the organization’s territories in Syria and Iraq, as well as in regions contested by ISIS.
  • ISIS-supporting accounts had an average of about 1,000 followers each, considerably higher than an ordinary Twitter user.

As a hostile regime, ISIS (also known as Islamic State or ISIL) has mastered contemporary media in a manner unequaled since Nazi Germany’s Ministry of Propaganda. During my graduate studies in 2010, I wrote in a discussion forum:

The Nazis made communication a key component of seizing and holding power. Censorship and propaganda worked together to suppress contrary communication while amplifying the Nazi agenda. The Nazis burned books and killed/incarcerated/chased off “undesirables” while Third Reich communicators such as Goebbels, Riefenstahl, and Speer immortalized the Nazi message in word, symbol, radio wave, film, stone and flesh (the Nuremberg rallies). Communication and power are intertwined. Hitler knew it from the time he scrawled Mein Kampf in the 1920s.

In a public relations course I taught in 2014 at Golden Gate University, I cited a New York Times article reporting ISIS’ “deft command of varied media,” echoing Nazi efforts. The terrorist movement blankets social media and produces Hollywood-quality videos promoting its ideologies and glorifying its atrocities including beheading and immolating captives. This user-generated content ensnares a huge global audience, multiplied by traditional media coverage of the missives.

In a 2004 article I wrote for AdWeek, I proposed a United States Department of Communications to unify and direct strategy and tactics that would foster “America’s perseverance in a wired, media-intensive world.” In the ensuing decade, social media have grown exponentially, giving our enemies vast opportunity to wage and win the media war. Per Richard A. Stengel, America’s under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, “the efforts to counter ISIS could have been better coordinated.”

The Obama administration plans its media counteroffensive through expansion of an office created in 2011, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. Per The New York Times, critics claim the office has lacked support and funding. “We’re getting beaten on volume, so the only way to compete is by aggregating, curating and amplifying existing content,” said Under Secretary Stengel as the media war with ISIS has intensified.

Social media propelled the 2011 Arab Spring which led to regime change in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. It is now an accelerant in ISIS’ quest to recruit supporters, seize territory, and cow opponents. Terrorists foment asymmetrical warfare, taking on much larger and more capable foes. Ironically, the asymmetry in today’s media war shows the terrorists as the superior combatant.

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