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Social Media Shows Best, Worst Sides in Journalist Shootings

FILE - On-air photo of former news station employee Vester Flanagan, suspected of shooting his co-workers Alison Parker and Adam Ward while live-tweeting the experience and recording it, in Roanoke, Virginia.

The shooting of a reporter and cameraman in Virginia live on air Wednesday highlighted the very worst — and the very best — of the instant sharing culture of news that now happens across social media platforms.

Former news station employee Vester Flanagan shot his co-workers Alison Parker and Adam Ward while live-tweeting the experience and recording his perspective of the shooting and sharing the video on Facebook.

“You’re seeing an event that was orchestrated to be live on broadcast but then also to be largely live on Twitter,” said Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research at the Pew Research Center.

Mitchell studies how users receive news on social media platforms. She said that in the digital space, anyone can end up being the driver of news. While traditional media outlets are still influencing the agenda, increasingly individuals involved in breaking-news events can be providers of news and get information out directly.

Between 2013 and 2015, the percentage of users obtaining their news from social media platforms grew from about half of all users to close to two-thirds.

Mitchell notes that while people aren’t going to the social media platforms to seek out news, they are receiving it in bits and pieces, mixed in with the overall experience of social media.

Blurring boundaries

Changes in technology allow eyewitnesses to record news events like the protests in Ferguson and the bombing at the Boston Marathon, while terrorist groups like Islamic State can drive social media conversations with videos of beheadings, blurring the boundaries between consuming news and taking part in the story.

In this case, Flanagan not only was the focus of the story, he also drove it by posting his own perspective on Twitter and Facebook.

The lack of editors and gatekeepers curating breaking news becomes combined with the self-aggrandizing tendencies encouraged by social media in a kind of perfect storm for the promotion of violence.

University of Alabama professor Elliot Panek studies the relationship between social media use and psychological traits. He said social media “acts as a kind of extension to someone’s instinct to draw attention to themselves and to get their message out in this kind of unvarnished, unedited way.”

For most people, this translates as an opportunity to post selfies and share personal details of their lives. But it also can cause people “to get stuck in this loop where they’re thinking more about themselves and curating their image and trying to get feedback and becoming more absorbed in themselves,” said Panek.

Desmond Patton, an assistant professor of social work at Columbia University, examines how violence is communicated on social media platforms. He said people may not realize that their physical and virtual worlds are colliding when hiding behind the safety of computer screens and keyboards.

“If you have a space where you can communicate freely [and] you are liberated to talk about these things, then you will, and that spans across age groups,” said Patton.

Tool for sharing

Panek said that while social media is a “tool for drawing attention to yourself with these kinds of horrible acts, it is simultaneously a tool for offering social support for one another.”

As the video of their deaths spread on social media, Parker and Ward were remembered and mourned by their colleagues on the same platforms. Users took to social media to encourage others not to view the video.

Twitter and Facebook suspended Flanagan’s accounts, although screen grabs ensure that the message survives on the Internet.

“As much as it’s a tool for drawing attention to yourself with these kinds of horrible acts, it is simultaneously a tool for offering social support to one another,” Panek said.

As the debate goes on about the use and consumption of news, the next question may become how to promote the positive aspects of social media while downplaying the more self-aggrandizing tendencies encouraged by instant sharing.

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    Katherine Gypson

    Katherine Gypson is a reporter for VOA’s News Center in Washington, D.C.  Prior to joining VOA in 2013, Katherine produced documentary and public affairs programming in Afghanistan, Tunisia and Turkey. She also produced and co-wrote a 12-episode road-trip series for Pakistani television exploring the United States during the 2012 presidential election. She holds a Master’s degree in Journalism from American University. Follow her @kgyp