The inadvertent consequences of al-Qaeda news coverage

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This paper explores the consequences of al-Qaeda news coverage related to (i) subsequent al-Qaeda attacks, (ii) the group’s popularity, and (iii) radicalization. I construct a daily index of al-Qaeda news coverage in the US from CNN, NBC, CBS, Fox News, the NYT, and the WaPo. To isolate causality, I employ an instrumental variable strategy based on disaster deaths: Everything else equal, the US media reports less on al-Qaeda when more people are dying from disasters worldwide. At its mean, al-Qaeda coverage is suggested to cause 0.2-0.3 attacks per day in the upcoming 1-4 weeks. I find no evidence that attacks are merely rescheduled because of diminished media exposure; rather, the total number of attacks increases with coverage. This effect is driven by easy-to-plan attack types and by al-Qaeda attacks in Iraq. Results are robust to an array of alternative specifications and consistent when considering news coverage on Al Jazeera. Al-Qaeda coverage also increases the group’s online popularity and search topics that are potentially indicative of radicalization (such as jihad and al-Qaeda’s magazine Inspire) are receiving more attention on Google. Nevertheless, these results should be interpreted carefully, as it remains difficult to fully disentangle online interest in al-Qaeda and sympathy with the group’s mission.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEuropean Economic Review
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2019


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