Marketing evil

76 people were killed in the attacks in Oslo and Utøya in Norway last friday. As atrocious as the act was, the perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik has described it as a "marketing operation". To him, it in fact was that, which is yet another example of how cold and calculative he was and - still being alive unlike most of other similar killers - still probably is. As a real act of terrorism with dozens of victims it's of course belittling to call this marketing. However, there are many inviduals, groups, companies and other organizations that don't do direct harm to anyone but that in some way do promote things that are at least malevolent, but often also downright illegal and cruel. Even murdering gets promoted.

Before handling the violence, let's first consider something else. Tobacco products are a prime example of something that is bad for you but has been promoted a lot in the past. They however have been put at a real tight spot nowadays. You simply cannot advertise them in many countries. In fact, it has lately become the opposite: instead of showing brand logos, cigarette packages have to underline there unhealthiness through capital-sized letters that tell you eg. that "smoking kills". This is all good, but it's still interesting to note how people have gone through all these measures, even though nowadays smokers are any way pretty aware of the dangers of smoking and that smoking is always a choice.

So do people show the same commitment to prevent violence? When tragedies like the one in Norway have happened, there has often been a tendency to blame the violence in entertainment such as computer games, movies and television series. Due to the perpetrator still being alive and having political motives, there might be less of that this time, but in general these questions do come up. Especially in the internet communities there has usually been a very strong disagreement with this view of entertainment being the cause of the tragedy. Common, rather naive arguments include "no sane person would do this no matter how much he plays a game" or "I've been playing this for hours almost every day, and I never feel like killing anyone".

It's of course very difficult to say how these things affect people, but I think it's clear that everything we see in entertainment affect us in some way. In case of computer games, the player also has an active role in the violence so I don't find it far-fetched that their influence is towards making people more violent. So in case a person is enraged by something to begin with, this violent entertainment might make it worse and push the person to violent actions in real life. Even so, this doesn't mean that fiction involving violence should be banned, even if it glorifies the violence. For some that may even be a good way of channeling negative feelings. Still, one should never deny that violent entertainment may promote real violence.

Then we have the news media. Especially in cases like this, its role becomes quite controversial. How to treat those involved with proper respect is of course a serious question, but it might still be relatively trivial compared to how to handle the perpetrator. On the other hand it's important to recognize the motive and to get an image of the character in order to be gain knowledge on how one could possibly prevent similar events from happening. On the other hand that's exactly what the criminal often (and at least in this case) wants, and thus all the media attention brings the message to all potential killers that by killing many people, one will certainly be heard. In addition, big headlines with the killer's face may also be a tempting fantasy for other potential murderers. So, by trying to get high sales a newspaper may in fact promote violence, and even trying to prevent further violence may also simultaneously promote violence. It's a real dilemma.

Tobacco can be justified with free will and being mostly harmful just to its consumer. Violent entertainment, even with the possible bad consequences it might cause, can also be justified by giving people enjoyment and basically being just a way of sharing information and experience. Still, not only the marketing but also the consumption of both of them are regulated at least in terms of limits concerning age and place.

News media is not only justified but also needed for spreading knowledge and awareness. However, it also has to be bound to certain rules as well. More generally, outside the mass media, freedom of speech is an even more important part of an open society that wants to improve the quality of life of all its members. It isn't limited in the same way as the media is, but still bound to some rules around the world. For example, hate speeches or incitement against ethnic or racial hatred are illegal in most countries.

Spree killing, Sponsored by Google?
Spree killing, sponsored by Google?
(the site as seen on 25.7.2011)

Entertainment, media and general freedom of speech are all basically just sharing information with certain rules. But how does eg. the site stand in this? It calls itself the "International Committee of Competitive Spree Killing", and lists all the worst killing sprees as a highscore list, as if killing was a game. The absolute majority of people will find this kind of site tasteless to say the least, but should it be allowed to exist in the name of freedom of speech? Doesn't this kind of a list persuade to kill as many as possible to get the "ultimate highscore"? Even though that can never be the only reason for the cruelties, it's a goal that can probably boost the ego of a serial killer and in the worst case be the last straw to push him over the limit. Thus, the site is basically promoting evil.

So if incitement against ethnic groups can be illegal, why not incitement against humanity in general? Doesn't SWITCH have the legal possibility to shut down such questionable content? It's of course hard to permanently close certain content on the net, but at least showcasing it can be made harder. In some cases one possibility for this is cutting the possibility for their funding. As a matter of fact the most startling about this is related to exactly that. If you look at the screenshot above, you'll see that the site has been running Google ads. The terms that Google have for running their ads include the following:
"You shall not, and shall not authorize or encourage any third party to engage in any action or practice that reflects poorly on Google or otherwise disparages or devalues Google’s reputation or goodwill."
I know I'm too writing on a Google platform, but I don't find mentioning this to be in contradiction with the above term. The spree killer site has been around for at least few years, so there has been enough time to notice what it's about. It still probably doesn't mean that Google exactly condones the content, but maybe it should follow its unique slogan "Don't be evil" in a more active fashion in terms of sites like these. As for the other organizations, individuals and media, that same slogan is worth pursuing for them as well. After all, even if questionable content or questionable marketing may sometimes be worthwhile in the short run or from a certain point of view, such a thing as bad publicity still exists.


  1. Ernest HemingwayJuly 26, 2011 at 1:08 AM

    Dear Sir.

    I do hope that you are aware that you yourself are promoting "questionable content" by linking to the site. The more the link is spread on individual sites, the higher the linked web service ranks in search engines and thus the more it gets hits. The more the link is clicked, the more they get money from Google Ads.

    It's the basic nature of Googlebot and other indexing services based on web crawling.

    Have a nice day.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Ernest.

    That's a very valid and important point. I did realize the dilemma in mentioning the site. I see this as having the same controversy as media when it paints the image of the mass murderer. However, where this differs is that that site could be removed, which would break the link, whereas you cannot just remove the potential of some people becoming mass murderers. In other words, little short term promotion is justified if it results in demotion in the longer term.

    It's still good that you brought that up though. I didn't give enough thought to putting that link up there. What I can do, is mention the site without exactly having the link there. That should diminish the effect of web crawling, and also make it less easily accessible from this article as well.

    There, now the link is removed from the text.

    ps. If you where wondering why your post wouldn't appear here, for some reason your comment was caught by the spam filter. Maybe because of the "dear sir" or something. Nice day to you too. :)