When the news first broke that a seemingly random slaying had been broadcast on Facebook, many assumed that we had crossed an inevitable, dreadful Rubicon: a murder staged by the perpetrator and sent out to the world as it happened. As it turned out, according to police, Steve Stephens filmed himself stalking and shooting Robert Godwin Sr. and then uploaded the video to Facebook. We remain on the other side of that river, even as we shuffle toward the water’s edge.
Incidents such as this are horrifying. But our sense that technology and social media have given rise to new forms of horror, and given vent to new kinds of nastiness is probably overstated. It’s true that technology makes it easier for killers to self-broadcast their own acts of violence and statements in which they try to justify themselves, just as the Internet makes it easier for those who want to be nasty to track down their targets. Focusing on technology, though, is a way of stanching the flow of cruelty, not eliminating it entirely. Long before you could hop on Facebook Live or tweet invective, killers and ordinary citizens alike found ways to get their words out, even if it took more effort than it does now. Acting as though technology has foisted fresh horrors on us or made us less nice is a kind of denial.
The suspect in the Godwin killing is hardly the first murderous man to broadcast his own violence or to make videos that attempt to justify and glorify himself. Two years ago, when Vester Lee Flanagan II shot and killed local news station employees Alison Parker and Adam Ward during a live broadcast in Moneta, Va., I wrote a similar version of this column, tracing the long history of murderers who have reached out to media outlets before or during their killing sprees.
Stephens’s alleged crime took place exactly 10 years after Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, taking a break after he shot Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark to mail videos and a written manifesto to NBC News. That month a decade ago, Facebook drew 20 million active users (a number that would rise before the year’s end), while NBC’s Brian Williams alone averaged 8.4 million nightly viewers, giving him the top-rated news show in the country. Cho’s thinking was radically distorted in almost every other respect. But in his choice of outlets, he was going where the reliable audience was. As of Dec. 31, 2016, Facebook had grown to 1.86 billion monthly active users. So even if only a small fraction of those people saw Stephens’s ghastly recording before it was removed, Facebook still gave him a better shot at a mass audience than the nightly news shows, which have seen their audiences decline in the past 10 years.
Cho himself was inspired by Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the perpetrators of the mass killing at Columbine High School in 1999. Harris and Klebold recorded a series of videos explaining their intentions that came to be known as the Basement Tapes. Unlike Cho, Harris and Klebold didn’t mail their tapes to a news outlet, though ultimately they didn’t have to. Though the recordings were seized by investigators, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office showed the videos to Nancy Gibbs and Timothy Roche of Time magazine, and later to the families of the victims and the perpetrators. The videos were subsequently destroyed, though by that point it didn’t make much difference: the content of the tapes had already been extensively cataloged and widely discussed.
Technology has done the same thing for people who merely want to be nasty: It has made it easier to do what people have always done.
In recent years, the families of the children who were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut have faced vicious harassment from conspiracy theorists who insist that their children never died (or in some cases, never existed) or that the massacre was perpetrated by agents of the federal government to make Americans more amenable to restrictions on gun ownership.
It’s horrifying that anyone would harry parents who are attempting to grieve their child. But the impulse to do so is hardly new.
After William Knox Schroeder was shot and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University in 1970, his parents received letters rejoicing in his death, with the writers accusing him of being a Communist. Schroeder was, in fact, a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps; the organization’s campus headquarters had been set ablaze during the escalating series of protests and confrontations that led to the fatal shooting, and Schroeder was apparently just moving between classes when he was killed.
The people who tormented the Schroeders may have had to go to greater lengths to do so than those who hound the Sandy Hook parents. It takes more effort to write a letter, track down an address and buy the stamp to mail it than to post on Facebook or a blog. But spite and self-righteousness are not recent additions to the range of human emotions, and cruelty is not something we’ve developed only lately.
Managing new technologies differently might restore some of those barriers between ourselves and what we don’t want to see or hear. If Facebook had moved more quickly to remove Stephens’s video, it might have spared Godwin’s family a measure of pain, though the company could not have restored Godwin to life. Requiring social media users to write under their real names and to verify their identities, one of the most frequently proposed solutions to online harassment, might serve as a caution that there can be consequences to unkindness.
If technology companies make these changes, angry and violent people will simply be as creative and as persistent as they have been in the past. Erecting high walls to keep a monster out doesn’t meant the monster is gone forever. It just means the monster has to work harder to get in.