The second was a photo of the victims, Alison Parker and Adam Ward: It’s a selfie, cropped from a larger photo, taken by Parker in May 2014 and resurfaced again by grieving co-workers.
You have, undoubtedly, seen both items somewhere in the past 36 hours, or at least heard them described. They’re the principal reason that Wednesday’s shooting has been christened a “social media murder” — perhaps the first, though doubtlessly not the last, of its kind.
The way Vester Lee Flanagan orchestrated the shooting for maximum visibility; the way he primed his Facebook and Twitter accounts to greet the sudden influx of curious visitors: These are the actions of both a madman and a marketer. The fact that Flanagan knew he could market death on social media is a horrific indictment both of us and the virtual spaces we’ve created.
To quote the academic Mo Elleithee, one of many people to swear off Twitter as the horror unfolded: “I’m going to log off for a while. This place feels gross.”
Was that all we felt, though — grossness — as the meme cycle spun through a distant tragedy? I’m thinking of the photo of Parker and Ward, her mouth half-open, him double-chinned and smiling.
I’m thinking of Ward’s personal Facebook account — quickly switched to a “memorial” page and pushed out by Facebook’s Newswire team — where Ward recently posted pictures of himself proposing to his girlfriend on the roof of the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
I’m thinking of a sickening post that Parker’s boyfriend, Chris Hurst, put on Facebook — sickening in the sense that his pain was so visceral, it made your stomach hurt. They had dated for nine months, he wrote, and recently moved in together. They had planned to get married.
“She was the most radiant woman I ever met,” he wrote, and in the pictures he posted, she looks radiant: her arm around him at a painting class, or by a river, or at a wedding.
“God bless the people who loved them,” one woman wrote, sharing Hurst’s post to her friends on Facebook.
“My heart aches,” wrote another, in a simple sentiment that, on further thought, sounds rather incredible: In a country that witnesses a new mass shooting every day, how can our hearts ache for anyone anymore?
Writing in the New York Times Thursday, the tech columnist Farhad Manjoo observed that Flanagan, a former journalist himself, knew how to generate maximum visibility. Double homicides are a dime a dozen in this country; he knew that without his videos, without social media, no one would ever pay attention to him. We’ve long become accustomed to this sort of violence, to the extent that it no longer provokes the usual emotional reaction: We are no longer horrified, and we’ve long since stopped feeling the victim’s loss on a personal level.
But we felt this one, didn’t we? Certainly the social reaction suggests it: thousands of retweets of Hurst’s memorial, hundreds upon hundreds of grieving comments. Parker and Ward were themselves very active on social media, and their Twitter handles continue to be mentioned every few minutes: “rest in peace sweetheart” — “we are praying for your family” — “you will not be forgotten.” It’s almost as if we’ve been resensitized, via social media, to the impacts of gun violence.
Neither Flanagan nor his video did that — but the now-iconic selfie of Ward and Parker did. I suspect we are now so very intimate with the death of distant strangers that we’ve become estranged from the tangible reality of it. But when a victim’s family posts remembrances to Twitter, you must witness their pain first-hand, in that moment. When you scroll through a victim’s feed and see photos of his cat, of his last vacation, of him proposing to his girlfriend at the Newseum in D.C., you must confront his humanity. You must process him not as a character in a distant news event, but as a relatable, sympathetic human being — a human being who was, until yesterday morning, exactly as real as you or me.
There is already an enormous amount of speculation over whether the tactics of “social media murder” will be copied by others; certainly, the literature suggests there’s a strong possibility. But it oversimplifies the aftermath of Thursday’s horror to suggest that Flanagan played us all for amoral, unthinking fools, “twisting” social media — to quote Mashable — into a bullhorn for evil. It’s inaccurate to say, without qualification, that his tactic “worked,” even — because just as his video spread across the Internet, even more people shared that photo of Parker and Ward.
Look at these photos. Cry over them. And then share them far and wide. As much as Flanagan may have wanted to bend these platforms to his own deranged agenda, we can also use them to keep some kind of outrage, and empathy, alive.