Who watches an ISIS beheading-And why

Am Psychol. 2019 Jul-Aug;74(5):555-568. doi: 10.1037/amp0000438. Epub 2019 Feb 25.


In the wake of collective traumas and acts of terrorism, media bring real graphic images and videos to TV, computer, and smartphone screens. Many people consume this coverage, but who they are and why they do so is poorly understood. Using a mixed-methods design, we examined predictors of and motivations for viewing graphic media among individuals who watched a beheading video created by the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). A representative national sample of U.S. residents (N = 3,294) reported whether they viewed a video and why (or why not) via an anonymous survey administered during a 3-year longitudinal study. Accounting for population weights, about 20% of the sample reported watching at least part of a beheading video, and about 5% reported watching an entire video. Increased likelihood of watching a video was associated with demographics (male, unemployed, and Christian), frequency of typical TV watching, and both prior lifetime exposure to violence and fear of future terrorism. Watching at least part of a beheading video was prospectively associated with fear of future negative events and global distress approximately 2 years after the beheading videos went viral. The most common reasons respondents reported for watching a beheading video were information seeking and curiosity. Results suggest attentional vigilance: Preexisting fear and history of violent victimization appear to draw individuals to graphic coverage of violence. However, viewing this coverage may contribute to subsequent fear and distress over time, likely assisting terrorists in achieving their goals. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved).

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Exposure to Violence / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Mass Media*
  • Motivation*
  • Terrorism / psychology*