Hamas has launched the most depraved social media strategy in interactive history. But this campaign of horrors goes far beyond traditional psychological operations tactics, such as demonstrating the failures of the adversary’s military or striking fear in opposing forces. It’s designed to generate anguish and anger on a strategic level.
But unlike pysops of old, Hamas can leverage modern media to create psychological and even physical harm among the target audience, in this case millions of Israelis, Americans and citizens from across the world glued to their phone and television screens.
Research suggests that graphic images of terrorism can actually cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTS) among viewers. PTS symptoms can include everything from flashbacks to insomnia and loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities. These symptoms in turn have been linked to health issues, which can range from physical ailments to substance abuse. Given that this research has been mostly based on television viewing, the addition of pervasive, easily rewatched and sometimes accidentally viewed social media images potentially makes the impact worse.
A meta-analysis of twenty-three studies of media coverage of terrorism and PTS found a small but statistically significant link between watching television reports of terrorism and experiencing PTS symptoms. (Houston, 2009)
One study after 9/11 even reported that people in Denmark who watched coverage of the attacks suffered increased rates of “trauma and stressor-related disorders.” (Hansen, Østergaard, Sønderskov, & Dinesen, 2016)
“(M)edia coverage following collective traumas can diffuse acute stress widely” reported one study involving the Boston Marathon terrorist attack. The data even suggested frequent media exposure to terrorism images could sometimes be more stressful than direct exposure to the attack. “Repeated bombing-related media exposure was associated with higher acute stress than was direct exposure.” (E. Alison Holman, et al. 2013)
One particularly depressing study examined the reaction of survivors of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to media coverage of the 9/11 attacks. “Surviving a prior terrorist incident and developing PTSD in relation to that incident may predispose individuals to adverse reactions to media coverage of a future terrorist attack.” (Betty Pfefferbaum et al, 2015)
To be sure, there is debate about the strength of the link between watching terrorist acts and experiencing PTS. Also, according to some analysts, experiencing terrorism on a screen cannot lead to full-blown Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And it seems clear that in general, notwithstanding the Boston Marathon findings mentioned above, witnessing a terrorist event in-person causes far more serious issues than just seeing it on a screen. Many Israelis who watched Jihadists murder their families and fellow citizens, along with 9/11 survivors who witnessed the fire and destruction of that day, will suffer for the rest of their lives.
But research suggests some people who’ve only seen the events in Israel on a screen could also be psychologically harmed. And for that Hamas no doubt celebrates.
Mark Sauter is co-author of the McGraw Hill textbook Homeland Security: A Complete Guide. A former US Army Special Forces and Infantry officer, he witnessed the 9/11 attacks up close while a resident of the World Trade Center neighborhood.