August 26, 2015 started off as it normally did for WDBJ-TV reporter Alison Parker and videographer Adam Ward. Heading into the station early for its “Mornin’” program and, then, out to a live shot that involves a local “feel good” story or one that highlights a new or expanding business. It’s something that anyone who has worked in the news business knows as routine.
Unfortunately, around 6:45 a.m., something out of the ordinary and tragic happened.
By now, you most likely know the rest of this story. Parker and Ward were murdered when a former employee of WDBJ shot them on live television. Vicki Gardner, executive director of the Smith Mountain Lake Chamber of Commerce, was also shot, but is recovering in a Virginia hospital. Vester Flanagan, who went by the name of Bryce Williams on the air, carried out the killings. He then took his own life while on the run.
Shortly after Flanagan committed the act, he uploaded his first-person account of the murders to his Facebook and Twitter accounts, along with his reasoning behind the killings. I’m obviously not linking to the video because it not only is horrifying, but also would prove the point that I’m going to highlight in this blog.
Social media has been drawn into the “look at me” arena when it comes to romanticizing terror and murderous acts.
Flanagan isn’t the first, and, sadly, will not be the last to use social media to gain an audience for a criminal act. Over the last few years, we’ve seen worldwide terror organizations use social media to recruit, share their heinous acts, and spread their messages of hate. Individuals looking for attention from their own “showboating” have taken to social, as well. Earlier this year, a Pennsylvania teenager posted a video on Snapchat with body of a fellow classmate he murdered. In September of 2013, a Florida man confessed to killing his wife on Facebook as well as posting a photo with the body.
As communications professionals, we sometime bristle at the word “viral.” It seems that everyone wants his or her brand, tweets, videos, and posts to get caught up in the social media atmosphere without much effort. Events like the ones mentioned above require little effort. Kill someone and then talk about it on Reddit. Want an audience? Social media is your place to get it.
We live in a world where we ask for people’s feedback on social networks or retweet a post when a celebrity says or does something outrageous. We enjoy the theatre of social media. So, it should not be a surprise when we have individuals sharing their last words on Twitter or posting a video of beating someone up on YouTube.
August 26, 2015 was not the first day that social media was drawn into the “real” world. It is only the latest of what will be more. There is already someone plotting the next way to use social media as a network for terror. It’s up to us to stop highlighting the copycats and ensure that social media is used as the vehicle we know it can be.