“Tunisia is not safe” and “the next terrorist attack and our country will be finished”. These were statements by President Beji Caid Essebsi while announcing a state of emergency. The president was sending a “shock therapy” message to the nation was the explanation given by Moez Sinaoui, his top communications adviser.
What psychological effects did these statements by the commander and chief have on us Tunisian citizens? I ask this question because what was said , considering the message and the deliverer, was very dangerous not only on the psyche of a fragile nation but also on its ability to defend itself.
In those spoken words were two strong messages that cannot be disregarded: a dictating style of communications long thought gone, and fear mongering. My focus for the moment is the latter, as the first one requires much more ink and time.
Ask any Tunisian today about his biggest concern and you will find that it is fear, and more specifically of terrorism. Tunisians up and down the socioeconomic ladder and of all political affiliations are exposed every awaken moment to news of terrorism threats, more attacks, and death related to terrorism. How should a nation like Tunisia, passive in its ways, unprepared for violence, and lethargic in implementing change, deal with what always was thought a foreign phenomenon related to oil, religion, and country grabbing.
Exposure to violence, terrorism threats, insecurity have major negative psychological repercussions on a nation discovering what it means to be unsafe for the first time.
Are we aware of short and long terms effects of such media exposure? Do our journalists understand at which point their reports contribute to the mental health of a nation? Are media aware of the psychological dangers and social and class divisions as a result of uneven reports?
Researchers at Harvard and Oxford Universities, dealing with psychological syndromes post 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks coined the term “mortality Salience” as the way with which people adapt to terrorist threats and overexposure to death-related thoughts or imagery. The images of death, dying and killing, which are inherent in most media coverage of terrorism, produce a mortality salience effect.
In the last two years, terrorist attacks in Tunisia have increased, and with them the number of casualties and daily exposure to violence, violence imagery, threats, and now state of emergencies. Most Tunisians have reacted like any others whose lives and model of society is being threatened, with anger, uncertainty, and helplessness, but also an increase in nationalism, patriotism and a call for unity. This is natural as Mortality salience can lead to an increase in identification with and pride in one’s country, religion, gender, race, etc.
Remarkably, mortality salience can lead to an increase in support for extremism when it is linked to group identity. Two recent examples of young Tunisians expressing sympathy and support for the Sousse or Bardo killers are the result of mortality salience and over exposure to terrorism in media. Also, individuals experience exaggerated tendencies to stereotype and reject those who are different from themselves. Research has demonstrated that mortality salience produces especially harsh reactions to those who are seen to be breaking the rules.
Thus, the mortality salience created by the coverage of terrorism can be expected to lead to an increase in sympathy and support for the government, thus, an increased hostility toward the country’s perceived enemies; while at the same time to augmented “hidden” sympathy to the terrorists themselves, providing them with easy future recruits.
While populations tend to cope fairly well with ongoing terrorist threats, media coverage often adds a destabilizing factor to the mix. Media attention certainly fosters a widespread belief that terrorist attacks are both more common and more dangerous than is actually the case, a case we have experienced after the Bardo and Sousse attacks.
Intense, and sometimes irresponsible, media coverage by itself can have some damaging impact with some adults and children appearing to suffer serious psychological problems as a result of long exposure to media coverage of terrorist attacks. Children often had trouble sleeping, suffer from nightmares, anxiety problems or depression. Adults can become stressed at work and in daily relationships, leading to decreased productivity at work, and increased hostility.
I am more than certain that communications training, responsible journalism, empathy and crisis management is a necessity not a luxury today in Tunisia and should be considered in any public or private institution’s strategy in dealing with this new chapter that is sadly not going away any time soon.