Thursday, August 27, 2015


I posted this on Twitter when we first learned about Vester Lee Flanagan's murder video:

As I predicted, National Review's Charles C.W. Cooke has called the killing "America's first social media murde,r" and the New York Times editorial board has lamented that "the outlet provided by social media appears to have whetted" the killer's "murderous appetites." But no one has fretted like Farhad Manjoo of the Times, who believes that we literally have no control over our own reactions to what's on the Internet:
... unlike previous televised deaths, these were not merely broadcast, but widely and virally distributed, playing out with the complicity of thousands, perhaps millions, of social networking users who could not help watching and sharing.

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. On these services, the killer knew, you often hit retweet, like or share before you realize just quite what you have done.
(Emphasis added.)

Really? I admit I watched both the unedited broadcast version of the shooting and the killer's video, but I didn't go into a fugue state and wake up an hour later having retweeted and favorited the clips a dozen times with no memory of having done so. That seems to be how Manjoo thinks we act when we witness violence on viral video, but I think we have a bit more self-control than that.

Manjoo goes on to write:
There was uncertainty in the sharing. Users expressed reservations as they passed on the gunman’s profile and his tweets. People were calling on Twitter and Facebook to act quickly to pull down his accounts. There were questions about the journalistic ethics of posting WDBJ’s live shot and the killer’s own document of the shooting....
Well, yes, exactly. There wasn't an uncontrollable wave of mindless, compulsive voyeurism -- if anything, the public cried out for suppression of the videos.

But that doesn't comfort Manjoo:
Over the course of 20 minutes on Twitter, the shooter updated his status a half-dozen times, culminating in a post showing the video of the killings. He quickly amassed a following of thousands, the sort of rapturous social media welcoming that is usually reserved for pop stars and heads of state.
Wait -- I follow a lot of people I don't like or admire on Twitter. I follow Donald Trump and Michelle Malkin and Michele Bachmann and Mark Levin and David Brooks and Judy Miller and Joe the Plumber, and that's just off the top of my head. After the Charleston shootings, I started following the Council of Conservative Citizens. I'm hate-following these people. What's wrong with that, apart from what it might do to my blood pressure? I want to know what these SOBs are up to. Is that so wrong? (And since when is having "a following of thousands," rather than hundreds of thousands or millions, particularly impressive on social media?)

If you've ever seen a wreck on the highway and not looked, you're a better person than I am. That's not the same thing as having an ongoing prurient obsession with violence. It's just that something extraordinary has happened, and it's an understandable human impulse to want to comprehend the event.

I agree with Manjoo that self-produced videos are likely to become a regrettable feature of future murders:
The videos got out widely, forging a new path for nihilists to gain a moment in the media spotlight: an example that, given its success at garnering wide publicity, will most likely be followed by others.
But I think ISIS has already made that inevitable, as has modern technology's ease of use. What the cynic in me thinks is also likely to happen is that we'll simply become bored with murder videos, the way we've become bored with gun violence in general -- within a decade there'll probably be a murder video a week uploaded to Facebook and Twitter or their future equivalents, and we'll pay attention only to the ones that are exceptional in some way. Which gets back to our real problem: the fact that we'll never deal with the level of violence we have in America, which is a much more important issue than the fact that we're interested in learning more when a particularly striking crime happens.


Never Ben Better said...

As surely as the sun rises in the east, so rise the deflector shields whenever gun violence erupts.

Unknown said...

And all say "amen".

Four Bs said...

Social media is the new mental illness deflector issue to keep us off the gun topic.

Greg said...

within a decade there'll probably be a murder video a week uploaded to Facebook and Twitter or their future equivalents

Reminds me of how explosions/shootings in public places became commonplace in Iraq in the 2000s. The new normal.

That state of affairs was primarily caused by Republicans enabled by Democrats, and so is this bloody situation.

Rand Careaga said...

Were there always this many seething man-children walking among us? I do not refer here merely to the homicidal asswipes like the Roanoke killer, but rather to the sociopathic trolls who take to the comments sections of the average newspaper website to gloat in public over their moral deformities. Was it ever thus?

I'm a little suspicious of my conclusion, precisely because it is congenial—I prefer to think that the genial grownups among whose mid-thighs I walked as a child during the Eisenhower Administration were in fact rational actors—but I think that individuals who, had they lived a couple of generations ago, might have enjoyed economic, institutional and cultural shields (of varying efficacy between them) against violent discontent, are not only more nakedly exposed to the consequences of late-stage capitalism red in tooth and claw, but are also having their worst impulses, up to and including eliminationist savagery, actively goaded by a violent, lewd, simplistic popular culture. We now share the commonweal with a large cohort of men (and women) who share a mindset at one time the near-exclusive franchise of alienated and desperately horny fifteen year-old boys. Unlike that vanished ur-demographic, we're fucked.