What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

When a shooter’s violent video goes viral

A shocking, televised murder in Virginia has provoked a wide array of questions about the shooter and how horrific images go viral online. Gwen Ifill speaks with Deborah Potter of NewsLab, Lance Ulanoff, chief correspondent and editor-at-large at Mashable, and Barry Rosenfeld of Fordham University.

Read the Full Transcript

  • GWEN IFILL:

    We look now at what made this latest shooting sadly familiar and shockingly different with Lance Ulanoff, chief correspondent & editor at large at Mashable, the digital media Web site, Barry Rosenfeld, a professor of psychology and director of clinical training at Fordham University, and Deborah Potter, the founder of NewsLab, a nonprofit journalism resource center. She is also a former television news correspondent and anchor.

    Lance Ulanoff, was it only a matter of time before someone live-tweeted something so horrific?

  • LANCE ULANOFF, Mashable:

    Yes, unfortunately, I think that's true.

    We are never without our technology. It surrounds us. It permeates our lives. We have powerful computers in our pockets, and we have been — you know, we are training our children from the youngest age to use social media, so it's something that comes very naturally to us.

    And what I noticed as part of this, this horrifying crime, is that the use of social media seemed to be kind of a natural act happening as he was doing these things. It didn't feel — that part of it didn't feel particularly premeditated.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, not only his act, but also was it a natural act that people instinctively shared what he put up online?

  • LANCE ULANOFF:

    Yes. Yes, it is.

    But, you know, it's funny, because I look at this guy, Flanagan, and I think to myself, this is a person who committed a heinous crime who wasn't in his right mind, and used social media in a way that terrifies me. The people who reshared what they saw, I understand the impulse, because you see something, it's newsworthy, that is what we do in this modern age.

    But I am surprised that they didn't stop for a moment and realize and think about what they were doing. And that's kind of where I think we probably have to take a closer look.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Deborah Potter, let's pick up on that.

    Given what we know about technology and the ease with which we can now disseminate this kind of information, what is the responsibility for coverage?

  • DEBORAH POTTER, Founder, NewsLab:

    Well, I think the point has been made that journalists are not the only ones who are sharing information anymore.

    And so for news organizations, there were very detailed conversations yesterday. Should we air this video? What should we do with it?

  • GWEN IFILL:

    It was in our newsroom.

  • DEBORAH POTTER:

    Exactly.

    But it doesn't really matter, because people are going to be able to find it in their own Twitter stream, on their own Facebook page. Other people are sharing it. So, I think, for news organizations, we're having the same conversation we have always had. What's the responsible thing to do? But that horse is already out of the barn.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The difference this time is, we have adjust for carnage that seems to happen in real time. How do you even anticipate something like that?

  • DEBORAH POTTER:

    You can't. And that's the problem.

    And this crew could in no way have anticipated that they were going to be in danger. There was a lot of talk today about, should we have armed guards go out with correspondents and cameras when they're going to go live somewhere? That's not going to happen. Should we have fewer live shots? Yes, I think we should. I think that would be a really good outcome if we didn't do so many sort of empty live shots.

    But at the same time, this is how we present the news. And that's what television does. It goes to places where things are happening. Should newsrooms talk more about the safety of their people and make sure people are aware of the dangers that they face, even when you don't think it could possibly be dangerous? Absolutely.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Yes, it's one thing to go out and cover a riot and expect something to happen. Nothing when you're talking to a Chamber of Commerce leader.

    Barry Rosenfeld, I feel like we ask this question every time, but what are the signs that we should be on the lookout for in these kinds of cases? Were there signals in everything we know so far about Vester Flanagan that should have tipped somebody off?

  • BARRY ROSENFELD, Fordham University:

    Well, you know, this is the hardest question there is, because it is easy to see signals with hindsight.

    So there are posts apparently on Twitter about him being a powder keg. He's had this history of animosity and paranoia towards people that he worked with. Is it surprising that this is a workplace-related shooting, given what we know about him? No, I don't think so.

    But of the countless people out there who have a beef with their workplace, who feel like they have been mistreated, who feel like there's racial injustice, can we identify the sliver that are going to potentially become violent? Not without a much more detailed approach, not without really taking things seriously when someone is brought to our attention, and I don't think anyone brought him to their attention.

    I don't think any clinician, I don't think any mental health person saw him with the question of, should we be concerned about him?

  • GWEN IFILL:

    In general, are targeted workplace shootings like this different in — in just the way we should assess them than random movie theater shootings, random mass shootings?

  • BARRY ROSENFELD:

    Well, there's a different profile of who that person might be.

    So, the movie theater shooting, that's a much more sort of psychotic-like offense. And the workplace shooting is usually somebody who has been or feels like they have been pushed to the breaking point, somebody who is — their ego, their self-esteem has been squelched by problems in the workplace. They see other people as the source of their problems. So it's a different profile.

    But, you know, I don't want to use that word profile to imply that we can go out there and find these people, because, again, it's that needle in a haystack problem.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Lance Ulanoff, I want to circle back to the tech part of this, because I wonder whose responsibility it should be when the technology has outpaced our ability to stop awful things from happening, if we were ever capable of it. Is it the responsibility for the Twitter and the Facebooks of the world to not make that possible, or is it the responsibility of the disseminators or the consumers of the information?

  • LANCE ULANOFF:

    Well, I try and explain to people, technology is super smart and also completely dumb. It doesn't know what you're putting on there.

    It works almost in an automated fashion. The idea of Twitter and Facebook is that you put something in, you press a button, and it goes to the people you have already set it up to share with. Facebook has over a billion users. Twitter has well over 300 million users. This was a remarkably savvy psychopath, to be quite honest, because as he was driving, he was sharing these things to his social networks.

    And what happens on the other side is, people who were either already following him or, as many in the media at that moment were doing, including me, who were looking for him to find traces of who this person is and what they're all about, basically stumbled on his live blog of his — of these murders.

    And he put them up there so quickly, while he was on the road, using his smartphone. And as soon as Facebook and Twitter were aware of what was happening, they pulled them down. It was approximately seven minutes, but, as your other guests said, cat's out of the bag. It was already out there and people — it was being shared all around. People had pulled the video down.

    It is not — I don't think it's the responsibility of them. But there is one caveat here, one very important caveat, something new that was added fairly recently to Twitter and also exists on Facebook. And it's autoplay, meaning that the videos play the moment they are in — they have the focal point on your screen.

    And I think that's a place where you suddenly can't get away from it. The video is playing, and I saw this video. And you cannot look away.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Yes.

  • LANCE ULANOFF:

    And you don't even realize exactly what you're seeing until it happens.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    That happened to me as well. And I figured out how to stop that from happening.

  • LANCE ULANOFF:

    Yes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let me ask Deborah Potter — but let me ask Deborah Potter about that, which is, what is our responsibility as news gatherers, as news disseminators, not only to protect ourselves, but also to protect the people who read and view what we watch?

  • DEBORAH POTTER:

    Well, I think the point Lance is making is a very good one with new technology. That is the whole question of autoplay.

    That can be disabled at the producer's end and should be in situations like this as soon as possible. And also I think it's important for newsrooms to talk to their audience about what it is they're doing and why. So, if CBS, as they did, decided to show the video that was shot by the perpetrator from his perspective, and stop it at the point where you see him pointing the gun, they need to explain why they did that.

    Why is it so important for us to show that to the public? And if we're not showing it, why are we not showing it?

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And, Barry Rosenfeld, I started this by saying it was very — sadly familiar, but shockingly different. Well, do you agree with that? Was this very different from everything we have seen before?

  • BARRY ROSENFELD:

    Well, it's — I guess I wouldn't say it's very different. It's not what the last couple of mass shootings have been, but it's a workplace violence incident.

    What makes it different is the Twitter feed, the live broadcasting of it. And I think that is just a sign of the times, that people are savvy with technology. And had this technology been around 15 years ago, the Columbine would have been on YouTube just as quickly.

    If I could just go back to a comment that your last guest made, you know, the other place where I guess I would hope people would maybe feel some responsibility is when a post is put on Facebook or on Twitter that "I'm a powder keg," maybe that's a place where friends or family could jump in or could say, you know, what's this about? Have you talked to somebody about this?

    I mean, I think there are other avenues other than the media necessarily or the government surveilling our posts. But there are some opportunities here for people to notice that he is at his wits' end, basically.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    We have probably just scratched the surface on this, but I thank you all for helping us to.

    Barry Rosenfeld from Fordham University, Lance Ulanoff from Mashable, and Deborah Potter of NewsLab, thank you, all three, very much.

  • DEBORAH POTTER:

    Thanks.

  • BARRY ROSENFELD:

    Thanks, Gwen.

  • LANCE ULANOFF:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest