Social media and a very modern murder

Published by The Daily Telegraph (28th August, 2015)

The images are calculated, chilling and instantly iconic. They open with a young woman television reporter chatting about tourism with a local business bigwig. Then a hand with a gun appears on the screen, so familiar from violent video games, and we see two women whose humdrum day has suddenly been engulfed by horror. Back in the studio a few seconds later, a stupefied anchor stares with wide-eyed amazement.

Already the American media has dubbed the shooting of the television journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward the first social media murders. In truth, this was just one more inadequate misfit achieving infamy in the most selfish way possible, another bloodstained beneficiary of crazy gun laws that have sanctioned 247 mass shooting incidents already this year. The age-old issues of jealousy and revenge were routine. But the big difference was how a failed reporter used his skills to broadcast a burst of slaughter to the world.

The sequence is sinister and shocking – yet this is far from the first social media murder. Even these awful images from Virginia are tame compared with the beheadings, burnings and crucifixions staged by Islamic State. The militants are using tactics of terror developed by drug cartels in Mexico, who regularly uploaded footage of death and torture to spread panic among populations. Several more murderers in the States have apologised, bragged or sought to justify deadly deeds on social media before being caught. And nor is Britain immune: the killers of Lee Rigby posed for pictures at the crime scene.

Yet the Roanoke killings place into sharpest possible focus the role of social media in disseminating hate and depravity. Four hours after the on-air shootings, the grudge-filled killer began posting allegations about his victims. Then came the video, going viral despite the rapid suspension of his accounts by both Facebook and Twitter and raising issues over the ethics of auto-play, which roll videos regardless of whether users want to see them or not. Indeed, so central is social media now that just three hours after Parker’s death, her fiancé was tweeting about their love and relaying details of their relationship.

This case entwines complex issues of insecurity, narcissism and the desire for notoriety, fuelled by combustible injustices whether real or imagined. Like so many of these sick individuals, Vester Flanagan left a long suicide note – in his case, 23 pages sent to a national television station claiming the deaths as retaliation for racial discrimination. This missive was short compared with the 1,518-page manifesto written by Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. But like him Flanagan desperately wanted fame and recognition.

These are the same forces that some psychologists say motivate people in their postings on social media; just think about the strange obsession with ‘selfies’. One expert claimed yesterday sites such as Twitter and Facebook encourage the instinct of human beings to draw attention to themselves as well as fuelling any tendencies to self-absorption. They can serve also as an echo chamber, fanning even the most deluded beliefs and distorted theories, while normalising deviant behaviour through the discovery of like-minded people.

Yet it is all too easy to blame a new form of media for flaws in human nature and deep-rooted problems in society. Certainly these killings raise a host of justified questions: over controls on social media; how the images should be used by other media; the morality of viewing them; even the double standards operating when it comes to displaying images of death from the developing world. I would argue, for instance, it is unethical to look at such footage. But as we grapple with the implications of our emerging digital world, it is wrong to use such twisted actions to damn social media.

Social media is merely a modern form of human communication – and like any other, can be used for good or evil. Its impact tends to be exaggerated by enthusiasts and Luddites alike, as seen with the Arab Spring. Mostly it is a beneficial device that brings people together, diffuses power, boosts democracy and increases transparency in society. But as a damaged man demonstrated in hideously dramatic style, the flip side of opening up mass communication and empowering everyone can be extremely dark and disturbing.


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