Rage, narcissism, a gun and social media combined for a particularly excruciating display of horror Wednesday morning. After murdering two former colleagues during a live TV news stand-up, the Roanoke killer uploaded a horrifying message to his Twitter account: “I filmed the shooting see Facebook.”
So now there were two awful videos — the live stand-up filmed by the videographer and the killer’s even more gruesome amateur version apparently taken with his phone.
This instantly took over the news feeds of the world. If you were anywhere near the Internet, you wound up experiencing this crime. You couldn’t escape it. This was an event both intimate and universal, and shared at the speed of light.
You may have realized the story had taken another terrible turn by the cries of co-workers saying, “Oh, my God.” The grief, too, went viral, as WDBJ7 co-workers and loved ones took to Twitter to mourn the murdered journalists, Alison Parker and Adam Ward.
Social media didn’t cause this crime. Nor is this the first case of a murderer seeking infamy. There is a stripe of killer who wants publicity. These people often leverage whatever technology is at their disposal.
That technology has become radically democratized in just the past few years. More than a billion people are on Facebook. We essentially have our own broadcast outlets now. And the Roanoke murders were committed by a man who had worked in the news business and knew how to reach an audience.
There are fewer filters — or none at all. If you set your Twitter account on “autoplay,” then the murder video would play automatically without need for a click. People possessed by hate, homicidal impulses or the desire to terrorize the public are getting better at exploiting the power of social media.
Social media’s astonishing rise has rendered it possible for amateurs to produce instantly viral words and images. Sometimes it’s something funny, or inappropriate — say, an Auschwitz selfie — but it can also be, as we saw Wednesday, a gruesome act.
“In the old days, you imagine Bonnie and Clyde getting excited when they made the papers. Now they’re taking it into their own hands. They’re putting out the stories themselves. It’s depressing,” said Keith Campbell, a professor of psychology at the University of Georgia and the co-author of “The Narcissism Epidemic.”
“This is not a mass shooting, per se, by a technical definition, but it is clearly an attention-seeking crime,” said his co-author, Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. “The technology’s made it easier, but there’s this underlying psychology of attention-seeking, narcissism, seeking fame.”
The two shooters at Columbine High School in 1999 fantasized that they’d be the subject of a Quentin Tarantino movie. The Virginia Tech shooter in 2007 paused to mail a media package to a TV network after he had killed his first two victims.
The 2014 Santa Barbara shooter uploaded a video to YouTube describing the mayhem he planned to unleash, and he distributed by mail a manifesto detailing his hatred of women and minorities.
Moments before a 19-year-old man went on a shooting spree at the Columbia, Md., mall in January 2014, he posted an image of himself to the social media site Tumblr. He was posing with his shotgun and a bandolier.
Such social media posing may have seemed shocking a year and a half ago, but it may be turning into the standard operating procedure for psychopaths.
“Once people start doing it, other people get the idea, and it becomes the norm,” Campbell said.
The Roanoke shooter began a Twitter account on Aug. 17, apparently knowing that soon his life would undergo scrutiny and hoping to craft a kind of memorial to himself. At one point, he tweeted, “My sexy bedroom,” with a shot of an empty bed. He put up numerous selfies. On Aug. 20, he posted four photographs of himself from over the years: “Headshot used for getting acting/modeling gigs way back when lol. And, wasn’t I a cute baby? ;-).”
Evil acts rarely have a single explanation, and this one’s no different. Again, a gun is involved. Again, it’s an angry, unsuccessful man. Again, he sent a rambling manifesto to a news media organization. It was a compendium of grievances: racial discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying by co-workers, family alienation. He expressed admiration for the Columbine and Virginia Tech shooters.
“I’ve been a human powder keg for a while . . . just waiting to go BOOM!!!! at any moment.”
He did everything he could to maximize exposure to the crime. He timed it so that it would be on live television and back-stopped that video feed with a shooter’s-eye video. He uploaded his work to social media, and within a few hours turned his gun on himself.
Humans create technology, and it bites back in strange ways. There are rising concerns among researchers about the effect of digital technology on human behavior and psychology. One major concern is that kids who can’t let go of a smartphone may not learn very quickly how to have a face-to-face conversation. All of us immersed in a life of screens struggle to find the right relationship with our gadgets.
But there’s no evidence that we’re becoming violent, and in fact the opposite seems to be true: Violent crime is down over the past two tech-crazed decades, notwithstanding the recent spike in urban homicides.
The news media are obviously implicated in the rash of spectacular violence — granting prominent coverage to people who, without resorting to terrible crimes, would have had little chance of ever becoming famous.
Gone are the days when a news organization could function as a gatekeeper and its editors could hold a meeting to decide whether to publish something disturbing. When a Pennsylvania official, Budd Dwyer, shot and killed himself at a news conference in 1987, the gatekeepers could decide how they wanted to handle the footage and photography. Today, such images would be instantly circulated on social media.
If there was one encouraging development Wednesday, it was the decision by news organizations such as CNN, Fox and MSNBC to show restraint in showing the television station’s video of the shooting and the action by Twitter and Facebook to remove the killer’s video from their sites.
On Twitter, a consensus quickly formed: Take this down. We don’t want to see it.
Though by then it was too late for many of us. And it is the nature of the Internet that nothing ever disappears. It’s still there, circulating, like a pathogen that can’t ever be eradicated.
“It’s like showing those beheadings,” said Andy Parker, the father of the slain reporter. “I am not going to watch it. I can’t watch it. I can’t watch any news. All it would do is rip out my heart further than it already it is.”
Brady Dennis, Darryl Fears, Amy Ellis Nutt and Ian Shapira contributed to this report.