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In the hours following the shooting of Virginia television reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward live on television, graphic video footage taken by the gunman began to circulate on the Internet.
The video, which shows police-identified suspect Vester Lee Flanagan approaching Parker and Ward as they prepared to interview Vicki Gardner and then shooting at Parker, was first posted to the Twitter and Facebook accounts of Bryce Williams, Flanagan’s on-air name.
Twitter and Facebook both reacted quickly in suspending the accounts to block access to the original video, and YouTube also removed copies of the video that had been re-posted to the platform. But the video had already been shared many times and is still easy to find online. One copy on Facebook has been viewed more than 36,000 times, and news outlets, including Gawker, have posted edited versions of the Twitter video. Video footage from the live broadcast that comes from Ward’s camera, which drops to the floor after he’s been shot, is also still accessible online despite requests from many users that the video not get shared.
The Internet proliferation of the videos is shining a spotlight on the role that social media providers play in the dissemination of graphic and often unwanted photos, videos and text. Specifically, some Facebook and Twitter users have questioned the auto-play function that both platforms employ, which starts rolling a video the minute users scrolls over the video in their news feed. The goal of auto-play is to drive interest in and views of videos posted to the site, but in the case of the videos from this morning’s shooting, it also could have meant auto-play of graphic, unsolicited material.
Twitter and Facebook autoplay videos made me witness the murder of someone from multiple angles today. Good job technology
— Tom Warren (@tomwarren) August 26, 2015
Wow. Thanks to the autoplay feature on @facebook I just watched a news anchor be shot to death on camera. Without warning. Without a choice.
— Kathleen Keller (@OriginalBiddy) August 26, 2015
“If I were Twitter or Facebook today, I’d start thinking about how to monitor this more closely,” says Christopher Finlay, an associate professor of communication at Loyola Marymount University. “Right now, safeguards are not in place.”
One solution, Finlay suggests, is to make auto-play a feature that users have to opt into, instead of the current opt-out system. But he adds that there’s no real solution for stopping sensitive content from spreading online. “There’s no way to get the genie back in the bottle,” he says.
A spokesman for Facebook said the social network removed the post for violating its community standards, but the company did leave up copies of the video posted by other users. A spokesman for Twitter referred THR to the company’s terms of service, which indicates that Twitter will remove content that is deemed to violate its user agreement, which includes videos, photos and text that threaten or incite violence against a person. YouTube, which promises to review flagged videos within 24 hours, also took down videos of the shooting. “YouTube has clear policies against videos of gratuitous violence, and we remove them when they’re flagged,” says a YouTube spokeswoman.
The policies and actions of social media sites in handling violent material have become increasingly relevant as more crimes play out online. While video footage like that of Wednesday’s shooting is rare, it’s not unprecedented. Islamic extremist group ISIS has been known to release videos of beheadings and shootings, forcing social media sites to act quickly to remove the graphic content. In other instances, a person about to commit a violent act has posted online a written manifesto or video explaining the motivations behind the act.
“Social media allows any individual to make a public statement,” explains Karen North, director of the Digital Social Media program at USC Annenberg. She notes that people have long left notes before committing a homicide or suicide, but that those notes are typically disseminated only to people who knew the person. Now, with social media, these messages are reaching larger audiences. “It allows one person to speak to many people. That’s a big thing.”
Aug. 26, 6:04 p.m. Updated to include statement from Facebook.
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