Online posts by Virginia shooter show alarming trend in social media

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Shocking social media posts by the man suspected of shooting two television journalists during a live broadcast in Virginia showed a disturbing premeditated attack in which the internet was used by a killer for maximum exposure.


ROANOKE, VIRGINIA, UNITED STATES (AUGUST 27, 2015) (WDBJ7) – Social media posts by the man suspected of brazenly shooting two television journalists during a live broadcast in Virginia showed a disturbing premeditated attack in which social media and the internet was used by a shooter to reach maximum exposure.

Reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, were shot dead on Wednesday (August 26) during a live segment for the WDBJ7 CBS affiliate in Roanoke, Virginia, at a local recreation site about 200 miles (320 km) southwest of Washington, D.C. Another woman was wounded.

Someone who appeared to be Flanagan, a former reporter at the station, then posted video to Facebook and Twitter that showed the attack from the gunman’s vantage point as well as comments indicating he had grievances against WDBJ7, which fired him in 2013.

“So what was so shocking for me about yesterday was the fact that this was a premeditated attack, but he also thought through what he was going to place on social media so he really had planned what his social accounts would look like, he set up a Twitter account specifically, he uploaded that video on Facebook and then he was live tweeting essentially from his own Twitter account and I don’t think we’ve ever had that play out before. And we’ve had cases of people uploading manifestos beforehand and you can look at their digital footprint, but that level of premeditation and how he used social media for maximum promotion was pretty shocking,” said Claire Wardle, the New Research Director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

“There’s much about social media that is wonderful, the fact that we share things that we love and we’re connected with people is great, but actually, when we looked at what happened yesterday, we have this human urge to share and to say ‘oh my goodness, have you seen this?’ and actually what we saw yesterday was that the killer knew that we would do that and so he played into that, those habits that we’ve developed,” she added.

Wardle, formerly the senior social media officer at United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and who has an impressive background in academia and journalism research, said that censorship of social media was problematic but that ways must be devised of shielding people from graphic and inappropriate content.

“If people want to find this material online, they should be able to do that. But what shouldn’t happen is somebody over breakfast rolling through their feeds and all of a sudden seeing a video of a murder that they didn’t seek out, it’s come to them. So I think when we think about this we think about social networks and how we can protect people from seeing things they don’t want to see. And similarly when we look at news organizations, news organizations have got to remember that they have an ethical responsibility to ensure a child walking past the newsstands this morning didn’t see stills from that video, they didn’t seek this out,” explained Wardle.

The video of the shooting was quickly removed from social media sites but not before being saved and posted elsewhere.

“Actually Twitter was incredibly fast, about 8 minutes I think. Facebook was about 15 minutes, YouTube took a little bit longer and actually this morning, somebody just sent me a screen shot saying on their Twitter feed the front cover of a New York newspaper which today has got the screen shots, it said ‘graphic material, click here if you want to see it’, so that is I think what we are going to see, which is the default will be not to see it or you have to click to see it. I would absolutely support that,” said Wardle.

One U.S. newspaper, the N.Y. Daily News, drew criticism for using pictures from that video on its Thursday front page.

“There are ethical guidelines which say news organizations should not show moment of death. But I think over the last couple of years, those boundaries have shifted because I think in newsrooms, newsrooms are saying ‘well it’s all over the social web so people have seen this stuff anyway so we have a responsibility to show it’ when actually news organizations don’t have a responsibility to show it. So I actually think we, particularly newsrooms, there is a growing level of desensitization, there’s so much horrible stuff coming from ISIS and from Syria and I think a lot of journalists have kind of lost that sense of what’s appropriate or not and have forgotten what it feels like to be an audience member who absolutely doesn’t want to see this,” said Wardle.

Flanagan later died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, authorities said. He sent ABC News a 23-page statement after the shooting, saying his attack was triggered by the June 17 mass shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, the network said. A white man has been charged in that rampage.

Flanagan, who is black, cited anger over what he saw as racial discrimination at work and elsewhere, ABC said. His three victims were white.

The woman being interviewed by Parker and Ward when the shooting took place, Vicki Gardner, head of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce, was wounded in the attack and is likely to make a full recovery, her husband said on Thursday.

Earlier on Thursday, WDBJ held a moment of silence to remember the two.

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