The horrific shootings of WDBJ-TV reporter Alison Parker and videojournalist Adam Ward have exposed an ugly side of social media. Bryce Williams, a former WDBJ employee, shot dead Parker and Ward during a live report on the Roanoke station’s morning newscast.
Moments later, the gunman turned to Twitter and Facebook, where he posted his own video clips of the shootings. With a gun in one hand and a mobile phone in another, Williams recorded a “point-of-view” video of him walking up to the news team’s camera and then opening fire on Parker and Ward.
In a world where there’s an appetite for viral content, it appears Williams’ use of social media was an intentional part of his plan. He understood the nature of our social media world, and accomplished what he likely set out to do: create shock value on social media in hopes that his posts would go viral. And, they did. Facebook and Twitter eventually suspended his accounts. By then it was too late. The videos had been shared by thousands. His own documentation of the crime was forever in the social media sphere.
The role of social media in this case raises many ethical questions — not only for news organizations, but also for society as a whole, as I discussed in a recent interview with the Associated Press. Do we want to live in a society where it is considered acceptable or commonplace to share such content? If so, what does this say about us? Where do we draw the line?