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Virginia shooting exposes dark side of social video

Lauren Brousell | Sept. 1, 2015
The tragic killing of two reporters during a newscast last week played out live on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The alleged shooter's use of social media raises questions about how popular social services manage auto-play video.

social media crime scene danger

After shooting three people during a live news broadcast in Virginia last week, the alleged perpetrator, Vester Lee Flanagan, took to social media to detail the atrocities. While police were looking for the suspect, Flanagan posted about grievances he had with his two former coworkers, both of whom were killed, and shared video before and during the attack on his personal Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts. (An interview subject was also wounded but survived.)

The tragic event played out live on social media, and it brings up a larger issue related to social video, auto-play features and sensitive or graphic content. The suspect's accounts were shut down within several minutes, but the video and posts were repeatedly retweeted and viewed. Many social users were caught off guard because video on Twitter and Facebook auto-plays by default, and lots of people aren't aware, or don't take advantage of, the opt-out setting.

virginia shooting memorial
REUTERS/Chris Keane A picture of slain journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward is seen next to candles at a memorial outside of the offices for WDBJ7 in Roanoke, Virginia August 27, 2015.

Account shutdown is first response to abuse of social streams

Social media services will never be able to predict the actions of criminals, and shutting down the alleged shooter's accounts was the right thing to do, according to Jess Harris, founder of Jess Harris Consulting, and content and social media manager at Kabbage. "The nature of social media is such that, there will always be a risk of this type of situation happening, no matter what efforts the social media platforms make to mitigate it," she says. "Even if they impose restrictions or platform modifications to lessen the impact, people will always find workarounds."

The suspect posted graphic video content, but his accounts also provided an important trail for law enforcement to follow. The essentially open nature of social media sites is a double-edged sword that social media providers and police both had to grapple with last week. "The more the suspect keeps talking on social media, the more information authorities have to help capture him and better understand facts in the alleged crime," says Bill Jasso, professor of practice with a specialty in public relations, at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communication.

Future of auto-play video uncertain

The act of posting graphic video leading up to and during the shooting is disturbing, but the auto-play feature made it worse for many users. Some people felt ambushed by the videos, and they weren't aware of the default auto-play setting or cognizant enough to dodge other users' retweets. Some were upset that people retweeted and posted the content, believing it gave the shooter a voice and a platform.


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