Politics and Society

The Power of the Terrorist Label

For many decades, but especially in recent times, there’s been endless debate over just what constitutes terrorism. Individual attacks are often scrutinised in minute detail to ascertain whether there was some sort of motivation that could merit the ‘terrorist’ label. The definition of this label and its application is subjective, varying not just from person to person, but also between different governments, law enforcement institutions, and international organisations. What is often agreed upon between said officials, however, is that Muslim=terrorist, leftist=probably a terrorist, anyone else=probably not.

Consider this:

There is clear difference in the use of language. Of course, there’s not some grand media-wide conspiracy: mainstream outlets generally wait for a cue from law enforcement or security agencies before going hog-wild with the label — the same agencies enforcing laws that just so happen to exclude most far-right extremist attacks from their definitions, despite their clear-as-day political motivations. I’ll leave the answer as to why up to your own interpretation.

What’s less debatable is the very real effect that these semantics have on public perception. An academic study published in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism last year found that the way people perceive attacks is heavily influenced by the language used to describe them in the media. People reacted much more negatively to the exact same article when it called the attacker a ‘terrorist’ rather than a ‘shooter’. They:

  • favoured harsher punishment for the perpetrator.
  • were more likely to agree with immigration controls as a preventative measure.
  • were more likely to favour responses involving the armed forces and intelligence services.
  • were more likely to characterise the perpetrator as ‘irrational’ or ‘immoral’.

We’re not just primed to react to the media’s usage of the label, either. We’ve internalised it to the point where it shapes the way that we, ourselves, categorise these crimes. Another study from last year found that people were more likely to label an attack as ‘terrorism’ when the perpetrator was described as a non-white Muslim than as a white non-Muslim.

The media holds immense power. By using this power to privilege the ‘official story’ of law enforcement and government so heavily, only applying such an influential label after getting the metaphorical all-clear, they greatly shape public opinion— whether they mean to or not.


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