Terrorism capitalizes on our deepest psychological flaws. But in what ways does the media bias contribute to our disproportionate fear of jihadism?
Extensive media coverage and human irrationality have contributed to the rise of anti-Islamic sentiment in the Western World. Exploiting our predisposition of intense loss aversion and disproportionate fear of rare, catastrophic events, extremist politicians have benefitted from the terrorism-derived trepidation sweeping across the globe.
In a typical passage of English prose, would you say there are more words that begin with the letter ‘K’ or more that have ‘K’ as their third letter? If you believe the former, you are in the majority. You are also incorrect.
Simply because words that start with ‘K’ are easier to call to mind, we believe them to be more frequent than the other option, the relatively unusual “K-as-a-third-letter” word. This heuristic was coined by the renowned pair of Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.
In The Undoing Project, a recent book on the duo, Michael Lewis describes the bias as the tendency for humans to think that event A is more likely than event B simply because event A is more easily called to mind.
Demagogues, terrorism coverage and the reinforcement of media bias
This same bias is, inadvertently or otherwise, exploited by Donald Trump and other right-wing politicians. Through capitalizing on the irrational fears of Americans – namely terrorists – Trump has seamlessly manipulated this bias.
Last year, for instance, roughly 40% of Americans interviewed in a survey said being a victim of terrorism or a terrorist attack on the nation were in their top 5 fears. Despite the widespread horror, people are reacting somewhat irrationally. In 2016, twice as many toddlers accidentally killed Americans than Islamic jihadists did.
The unrelenting flow of news coverage surrounding terror attacks contributes to media bias. Factiva, a journalism database analyzing over 33,000 sources, discovered that from 1969 onwards, there were 1.3 million mentions of “terrorist attacks” within English articles. In terms of journalistic frequency, the topic is somewhere between “Super Bowl” and “nuclear war.” In recent years, the number of articles discussing terrorism has risen considerably. In 2015, there were 22,000 mentions of the subject, almost doubling the 14,000 from two years prior.
In a recent article, Paul R. Pillar, former deputy chief of the Counterterrorist center at the CIA, writes
“Public concern about terrorism and efforts [to counter it] tend to spike upward immediately after terrorist attacks […] Yet terrorist attacks are only the aperiodic outward manifestations of an underlying threat that does not vary with sudden upward spikes in a way that corresponds to changing public attitudes.”
This statement reinforces the legitimacy of the availability bias. We believe an event – terrorism – to be more likely directly after it happens simply because it is at the forefront of our minds. This is as mind-boggling as it is frightening. If a government’s goal is to be rational and efficient yet simultaneously serve the public interest, should it respond to its citizens’ irrationality?
Insurance, lottery tickets, and disproportionate fear
Fear plays a part in this “irrationality” as well. Michael Lewis writes, “people treat remote probabilities as if they were possibilities.” In the same vein, people behave as if a one-in-a-billion loss were not one-in-a-billion but rather, approximately, one-in-ten-thousand. The same is true for the perceived odds of a win. This is why people buy insurance and lottery tickets. They attach more fear to a longshot loss and more hope to a longshot win.
Paul Slovic’s work on decision making under uncertainty sheds light on why we overestimate rare yet catastrophic events. He asserts that there a multitude of factors that influence our perceived probability of an event. These include whether or not we trust the person, how catastrophic it is, how uncertain/in control we are, and if it incites “dread or anger.”
Unanticipated, calamitous terror attacks, perpetrated by aggressive and unpredictable strangers who are hostile to democratic, liberal ideals would check all of these boxes.
Terrorism capitalizes on our deepest psychological flaws. The availability bias, our flawed predisposition to be loss averse and overestimate the odds of a rare event, and the relentless media bias of emotional, catastrophic events all contribute to our disproportionate fear of jihadism. This trifecta of terror aids xenophobic, belligerent demagogues, from Marine Le Pen to Geert Wilders to Donald Trump, to get elected.