The way we experience mass shootings online now is with everything at once. Rumors and facts go viral alongside each other before anything is confirmed. And raw, often violent video increasingly is posted minutes after news breaks, followed by questions about what the dissemination of these videos accomplishes — and why we share them in the first place.
One video posted Saturday, with more than 250,000 views on Facebook, appears to begin outside a Walmart in El Paso, the area where an attacker killed 20 people and wounded dozens more. A man, whose Facebook name matches that of a witness to the shooting quoted by media outlets, walks inside the store while filming on his phone. He approaches a body, face down in the entrance, in a pool of blood. Another bystander is already there, phone also pointed toward the body. The two nearly collide, both watching their phones. The camera lingers on the body for minutes, even as a handful of women attempt to exit the store, shielding the eyes of their children to protect them from the carnage.
More than 4,000 people have shared this video, which was streamed live and now carries a graphic content warning from Facebook. But others, in the video’s comments, pushed back. “Stop filming,” one Facebook user wrote as the live video was broadcast. “Take that off bro,” another wrote. “His family is going to see this.” And another: “This is so disrespectful to the deceased.”
As the public becomes more experienced at watching massacres unfold live online, a few informal rules have emerged: Don’t sensationalize the gunman. Don’t help misinformation spread, even to condemn it. Focus on the stories of the victims and, referencing a famous Mister Rogers quote, the “helpers.” The public is even getting better at recognizing that mass shooters want — and know how — to go viral, sometimes with live videos of their massacres and manifestos posted to extremist message boards. But videos from bystanders, posted in the moment of tragedy and spread rapidly, often outpace questions about why we share them and what the mass broadcast of violence does to those who suddenly can’t avoid seeing it.
As social media continues to shape how the public experiences breaking news, the central question of how to be a responsible, informed citizen has shifted from what makes up your media “diet” to what you choose to share.
“There is a deep human need to say, ‘Hey, I was part of this,’ to document and to share. I don’t think there’s anything sinister with that need to share a horrible, terrible experience,” said Kelly McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute, a journalism research organization. But once posted, “you can’t control what happens to that video.”
People can share violence online for the best and worst reasons. Many videos of the El Paso shooting were shared with calls to action, asking the public to bear witness to the dead and work to prevent other massacres. The students who survived last year’s mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school used social media to broadcast the terror they experienced to the world. And then, once they had the public’s attention, a portion of those students began a movement to change gun laws.
But even when a video is shared in an attempt to cause change, that doesn’t mean it goes viral for the same reasons. Violent videos are often shared by those unconnected to the tragedy because they are “exciting,” said Monnica Williams, a professor and researcher on mental health disparities at the University of Ottawa. “It’s like an action movie.”
"A lot of people share things because they want to get a lot of traction,“ McBride said. “You see something and you share it because you know people will get a reaction out of it.”
Violent videos are simultaneously newsworthy and traumatizing, important documents of injustice that can bring the public to action and “profound invasions of privacy,” McBride said. The content is valuable to journalists who are attempting to tell the public what happened and to activists who want to address the cause of that violence. But videos, often showing the dying moments of a victim, are also nonconsensual, she said. Even if you have permission from the person filming the video to share it, “there’s absolutely no way to talk to people documented in the video to establish consent.”
Williams noted that we’ve seen this before. Raw footage of police violence against African Americans, filmed by bystanders and by police vehicle and body cameras, drove news coverage on police brutality in recent years. But it came at a cost: “A lot of us in the African American community, we thought, ‘Oh, finally there’s a record … and people are going to be called to justice.’ That didn’t happen. Instead, we just ended up with these videos of dead black people for entertainment.”
The proliferation of these videos exposed another bias, Williams said. The public, including some media outlets, is more inclined to share and sensationalize images of the bodies of people of color. “How often do you see a dead white victim on any form of media?” Williams asked. “For some reason, it’s okay to show dead black and brown bodies.” Seeing this footage can traumatize those who most look like the victims, Williams said, particularly children.
Viral content of any kind has a way of outpacing its context, driven by a need to share that prompts people to ask why later. Violent videos emerging from breaking news events are no different. And sometimes, the news cycle itself preempts soul searching: Hours after 20 died in El Paso, a gunman in Dayton, Ohio, opened fire outside a popular bar, killing nine more people.