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jonas-leupe-dZmNJKFDuVI-unsplash.jpgThe proliferation of ubiquitous modern media technologies and the 24-hour news cycle allows people to engage with events anywhere in the world as they unfold. In the context of violent conflict, war and disaster, such instantaneous and vivid immersion into global events transmits traumatic experiences to geographically distant populations. For example, longitudinal research using probability-based U.S. nationally representative samples has shown that longer exposure to media coverage of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks (Silver et al., 2002), Iraq war (Silver et al., 2013), Boston Marathon bombings (Holman et al., 2013) and Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre (Thompson et al., 2019), was associated with greater acute and post-traumatic stress. Exposure to terrorism and war media is also prospectively associated with worse physical health years later (Holman & Silver, 2011; Holman et al., 2008; Silver et al., 2013). Today, disturbing images and videos of live military action and bloodied and dead civilians–including children–from the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Israel-Gaza inundate global media. Given the potential for news coverage to spread distress beyond borders, it is important to understand who is most vulnerable to engaging with such media to mitigate its negative psychological impacts by informing the public’s media consumption habits.
Mass violence, terrorism and war often entail homogenous social groups being targeted. For example, victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida were predominantly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ+) and Hispanic. Victims of the 2017 Route 91 concert mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada were country music fans, and the 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand massacre victims were Muslim. In ongoing wars, Western media portrays Ukrainians as victims of Russia’s invasion, and both Israelis and Palestinians as victims of each other’s actions. Research on social identity and self-categorization theories (Tajfel & Turner, 1979; Turner et al., 1987) suggest that sharing social identities with victims may drive engagement with media coverage of these events, increasing risk for distress. While personal identities comprise unique aspects of the self that differentiate an individual from others, social (collective) identities are depersonalized perceptions of the self where the self and ingroup become interchangeable (Brewer, 1991; Brewer & Garnder, 1996). People identify with social groups by incorporating the group’s identity into their self-concept and attaching meaning to group membership (Tajfel & Turner, 1979; Turner et al., 1987; Turner et al., 1994). Consequently, the more a social identity is made salient the more likely its members will interpret information, feel emotion, and behave in identity-congruent ways (Mackie et al., 2000; Smith et al., 2007; Van Bavel & Cunningham, 2012; Xiao et al., 2016). Thus, an attack on one’s ingroup may be perceived as an attack on oneself, leading to identity-congruent threat responses such as heightened anxiety and hypervigilance for self-relevant threats, including seeking information about one’s affected ingroup.
Social identities shape people’s threat responses. The social identity approach to clinical and health psychology considers that people experience and express attitudes, emotions and behaviors as individuals in a social environment, hence social groups play an important part in shaping their experiences. Indeed, social identities can be formed based on shared experiences, such as how war shapes soldiers’ bonds into veterans (Muldoon & Lowe, 2012; Muldoon et al., 2019; Muldoon et al., 2021). Moreover, people who share similarities with trauma victims report more depression and distress (Herberman Mash et al., 2016; Wayment et al., 1995). However, less research has investigated how identifying with victims of mass violence may drive related media engagement and subsequent psychological consequences. My colleagues and I investigated this phenomenon by surveying a large U.S. national sample five days after the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre, the largest mass shooting in U.S. history at the time. Across the U.S. people who, prior to the massacre, identified as LGBTQ+ or Hispanic reported heightened acute stress, and this prospective association was explained, in part, by greater massacre-related media exposure (Relihan et al., 2023). Moreover, people who shared both identities reported even greater acute stress, suggesting additive negative psychological impacts of sharing multiple targeted identities. Our research suggests that identifying with victims of mass violence is a risk factor for engaging with related media and distress.
As graphic images and videos of violent conflicts such as terrorism, police violence against minorities, and the wars in Ukraine and Israel-Gaza inundate global media, people who once were geographically and psychologically isolated from the worst of these experiences can now be immersed live in such traumas. Understanding who is at risk for engaging with this media coverage is important for public and mental health experts, journalists, media organizations and the public to make informed decisions to avoid its negative psychological consequences. Further research is needed to better elucidate the contexts and mechanisms through which ingroup members of mass violence victims perceive and respond to attacks on their ingroup.

About the author

Dr. Daniel P. Relihan is a social psychologist and postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) in the Silver Stress and Coping Lab. He received his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Master’s degree from New York University, and doctorate from UCI. His research focuses on how social identities, ideology (political, religious), and morality shape the way people perceive and respond to different types of threat.


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