What happens when murder goes viral?
On Wednesday, former television broadcaster Vester Flanagan fatally shot and killed two former colleagues from WDBJ while they were on a morning assignment at the Bridgewater Plaza near Roanoke, Virginia. The methodical stalking and execution of reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward was caught on camera, first through Ward's lens during a live broadcast, and then in the form of two videos taken by Flanagan himself that captured the seconds leading up to, and the moment of, the brutal slaying. Flanagan uploaded the horrifying videos to social media, tweeting while evading police. He died around 1:45 p.m. of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.*
Through no fault of my own, I watched both videos. The nature of Twitter and Facebook's autoplay feature, designed to capture every precious millisecond of your attention as you while away time between tasks, meant that what was essentially a snuff film was automatically served to me between baby photos and BuzzFeed quizzes and all the other digital flotsam that clogs our feeds each day. After a few minutes, I walked to the men's restroom and vomited.
I know I'm not the only one. The resulting outcry induced the two tech companies into pulling the videos and suspending those social media accounts, but it was too late. After all, who can stop a murder from going viral in the age of mechanical reproduction, when art and media are copied and re-distributed at the click of a button? So we insist: Don't watch. Don't say the shooter's name, but mainly, just don't watch. This plea underscores an important ethical question: Do we actually have a moral obligation not to watch the evidence of humanity's basest impulses?
There's certainly a strong argument for the media to exercise discretion when airing graphic video, as CNN did for a few hours on Wednesday. A recent study by Arizona State University and Northeastern Illinois University found that between 20 and 30 percent of shooting attacks are inspired by previous ones. The authors of that study go so far as to characterize this chain of butchery as "contagious," with attacks involving more than four victims occurring every 12 days in the United States. Indeed, Newtown shooter Adam Lanza kept a spreadsheet of mass murders for years before massacring 20 innocent children at Sandy Hook Elementary. Flanagan himself expressed adoration for previous madmen in a suicide note mailed to ABC News on the day of the attack. "I was influenced by [Virginia Tech shooter] Seung-Hui Cho. That's my boy right there," Flanagan wrote. "He got NEARLY double the amount that [Columbine shooters] Eric Harris and [Dylan] Klebold got ... just sayin'."
Do we actually have a moral obligation not to watch the evidence of humanity's basest impulses?
The media should always move thoughtfully and with purpose. Writing after the Sandy Hook massacre of 2012, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci noted that, following a chain of teen suicides in the 1980s, media outlets adopted stricter standards to avoid inspiring future copycats. We've seen these standards—not describing the technical details of an attack, or not using a suspect's name—discussed in the wake of recent mass shootings (although the New York Daily News didn't seem to get the message with its tasteless Thursday cover). But that poses a problem with someone like Flanagan, a former media professional who, as New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo observes, strategically planned his killing for maximum exposure. "The horror was the dawning realization, as the video spread across the networks, that the killer had anticipated the moves—that he had been counting on the mechanics of these services and on our inability to resist passing on what he had posted. For many, that realization came too late," Manjoo writes. "On these services, the killer knew, you often hit retweet, like or share before you realize just quite what you have done."
If it's not the old media gatekeepers that are responsible for the sudden spotlight on death, it's all of us. So what does that mean? Am I still in ethically suspect territory simply by viewing the footage? Our instinct (at least according to Twitter yesterday), has been, yes. It's not just that watching these videos makes us complicit in a shooter's plea for fame: To watch both is just plain wrong, regardless of the consequences. To observe a gruesome, senseless murder as I would any other viral video is ghastly, indicating a startling lack of empathy. Even if we're disgusted, the impulse to watch is bad enough. And maybe that's unavoidable. We're certainly hardwired to crave violence in some respects. And it has grave consequences: As countless media scholars have noted, violent media is desensitizing.
The macabre voyeurism of ghoulish communities like Reddit's r/murderporn speaks to an alarming fixation, but the curiosity for a glimpse at the great beyond speaks to a natural psychological fascination. "We are probably more afraid of death than anything else," the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine's Gail Saltz told the Atlantic. "The fascination with viewing someone who is [dead] ... is driven by that sort of supreme fear of ours which makes us want to know more and to understand the experience and feel like we have some kind of window in." As a result, social media-induced trauma is quite real, especially for media professionals glued to their screens all day.
There's a fundamentally troubling case against ignoring these videos: Some atrocities are meant to be recorded and watched in their vivid, visceral detail, if only so they can be remembered. Consider, perhaps, how Allied troops forced German civilians to take in the horrible conditions of concentration camps following the fall of the Nazi regime, and to "bury decomposing corpses and even exhume mass graves"—not just to impose a sense of collective guilt, but to protect the memory of such atrocities against the sands of time. History's greatest conflicts have their iconic photos, from Eddie Adams' "Saigon Execution" to Kenneth Jarecke's disturbing photo of an Iraqi man burned alive. Consider the Falling Man, the iconic photograph of an anonymous figure tumbling from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, which prompted an American theologian to declare that "perhaps the most powerful image of despair at the beginning of the twenty-first century is not found in art, or literature, or even popular music.... It is found in a single photograph." Consider that MSNBC re-airs it's 9/11 coverage every year. If the argument is to avoid glamorizing a shooter's crime, that's frankly impossible to avoid. People have fallen in love with serial killers since the 1970s. And if the worry is that Flanagan will get the very attention he so meticulously craved, well, he's dead. What he wanted has no bearing in how we move forward from yet another American tragedy.
Some atrocities are meant to be recorded and watched in their vivid, visceral detail, if only so they can be remembered.
Should we banish all evidence of humanity's dark side from our collective consciousness, or have it burned there for all eternity? It's too strong, too gut-wrenching, to argue that viewing the shooting tape is ethically right, but it's a better option than arguing that it's ethically wrong—a reasoning that essentially makes the case for a human society that buries its head in the sand. "Rather than cleanse newscasts and websites of the on-air killing, producers and editors should make it easily available to their viewers and readers, because our society unfortunately needs vivid reminders of the awesome, life-stopping power of firearms," argues the New Republic's Brian Beutler (in a story that features a particularly tasteless headline). "In an abstract sense, everyone knows guns are deadly, in the same way everyone knows cigarettes are deadly. But our political culture—the conservative faction of it, at least—sanitizes the way guns end life in a way that sets gun violence apart from other public health risks."
I would never condone, say, playing this video in an American high school civics classroom, but ignoring it entirely is even worse. The age of mechanical reproduction, especially the lightning fast social media, has done wonders in giving a society's collective moral conscience a form and voice. We have a historical memory now, marked with visceral, viral iconography, horrifying videos and powerful photos, and the one amazing tweet you need to read to understand the biggest problem of the day. It refuses to let us forget, if only so we can maybe, actually attempt to ensure that these horrors never happen again. The abstract threat of terrorism doesn't animate us to act, but the image of two burning towers does.
The Society of Professional Journalists advises media organizations that cover violent crime to "avoid pandering to lurid curiosity." In the case of vicious, inhuman crimes, that lurid curiosity is often the only thing truly drawing us to that grisly frontier where the true horrors of modernity are revealed to us in their entirety. So watch the video, or don't—but if you do, do it for the right reasons: Let this sick, twisted video, the last gasp of a cowardly murderer, be the emotional shock you need to take action.
*UPDATE — August 27, 2015: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect where the shooting took place.