The Psychological Impact of Virtual Terrorism

08/28/2017 08:46 am ET

Much of the research that has been conducted about the psychological impact of conventional terrorist attacks has focused on the immediate increase in psychiatric symptoms and disorders, and the relatively quick ‘normalization’ of psychopathology in the weeks, months, and years following an attack. Such conclusions may mask the underlying sense of fear and worry that many people have about terrorism threats, or future terrorist attacks, however. Lingering fear varies across time and context, affecting people in a variety of ways, and although these symptoms do not necessarily reach the level of a psychiatric disorder and require treatment, they may can significantly influence daily activities such as decisions about employment, who to socialize with, whether to use public transportation such as buses and trains, and whether to venture into public and crowded places. That is an unfortunate reality for many of us.

Fear, in comparison to anger, has been associated with a greater degree of perceived risk, as well as preferences for more precautionary, conciliatory measures to reduce external threats. Anger may actually lead people to experience a greater locus of control over their environment, whereas fear is associated with less perceived control. Conventional terrorists can maintain a background of fear that lingers well beyond a physical act of terror. Fear and dread are magnified many times with Virtual Terrorism, however, because the more someone knows about cyberattacks, the more they come to realize that they either have already become a victim or probably will be at some point in the future.

As one of our most powerful motivators, fear is arguably the most commonly manipulated emotion. Whether in the form of a fake e-mail saying that your online bank account has been compromised and requires a password change, an urgent bank security notice, or a call to action allegedly sent by a known ‘friend’, these scams leverage a specific threat directed at a given target, designed to strongly encourage him or her to act quickly in order to avoid or rectify a dangerous or painful situation. Such scams presume the target will be obedient, given that the ‘order’ its creators are sending is supposed to be from an authoritative source.

Cybercriminals not only seek to take advantage of negative human tendencies, they also seek to manipulate individuals’ desire to help others. These campaigns are often targeted at customer service departments, with the attackers betting that an employee’s desire to lend a hand and make others happy will encourage them to divulge or accept more information than they should. It is truly surprising how many phone or electronic-based customer service representatives will bend their operational rules because of a desire to be helpful. This has led to countless instances of breached security, with consequences.

Traumatic events can undermine a person’s basic assumptions about the world, triggering enhanced perceptions of the world as a threatening place, and a correspondingly strong desire to reduce the perceived threat through an enhanced propensity toward militancy. One study of American adolescents found that those youth who were both victims and perpetrators of cyberbullying experienced more severe forms of physical health concerns (for example, difficulty sleeping, headache, poor appetite, and skin problems). Adolescents’ grade level moderated these negative effects, with high school students who were both perpetrators and victims of cyberbullying reporting the highest levels of anxiety, depression, and the most number of physical health problems in recent studies.

Virtual Terrorism is not as much about acts of terror as it is acts that violate the principle of noncombatant immunity. Virtual Terrorism can undermine morale, public trust and governability, which may be even more dangerous than conventional forms of terrorism. It is accomplished by attacking the foundations of everyday life. Part of what gives Virtual Terrorism such potency is its ability to elicit extreme anxiety and fear among its victims, and those who worry they may become victims. The anxiety and fear may be completely disproportionate to the actual risk of becoming a victim - this is part of what makes Virtual Terrorism so frightening. The media in many societies have desensitized populations’ predisposition to abhor violence and instead crave it through a constant barrage of violence on television, in movies, and online.

The Era of Virtual Terrorism we are now living in has made it increasingly difficult to get from point A to point B without having to think or worry about whether someone is watching, whether you might be in danger, or whether someone half a world away is about to take control of your life. Such concerns are not simply a phenomenon of the Internet era, they are directly related to the advent of the Era of Virtual Terrorism, which is so new and relatively unexplored by mental health professionals that the cumulative toll it takes on us all is largely unknown. This is sure to become the subject of greater research in the future.

*Daniel Wagner is author of the new book “Virtual Terror” and Managing Director of Risk Cooperative.

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