Last Wednesday morning, as I was running around the house getting kids off to school and ready for work, a breaking news update popped up on my phone. Shots had been fired during a television news crew’s live shot in Virginia. More details were to come as the story developed.
As we all know now, those details were horrific, as we learned reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward were killed on live television by a disturbed former colleague, armed with a gun in one hand and his smartphone in the other recording this awful tragedy, which he later posted to social media. The videos were removed by the sites, but not before they were captured by users who reposted them.
Some media outlets refused to show them, saying that was what the killer wanted (the correct move). Others argued its newsworthiness and broadcast it, or used stills of his gun from his video pointed at them just seconds before their deaths.
Obviously, this was a very disturbed individual, who his former colleagues said had a convoluted image of the world. He had decided Parker was a “racist,” as documented in court records because she used a common phrase in the news biz, saying she was going to be “out in the field,” which of course just means outside of your station, covering a story. But the gunman took that to mean she was saying something about “cotton fields” and him being black. Clearly, only a distortion a disturbed individual would make. There were several other similar examples and stories of erratic behavior, and I’m sure in hindsight it seems like these senseless murders could have been prevented.
My heart goes out to their families, friends and colleagues.
I certainly don’t blame this tragedy on social media. This was largely because a mentally unstable ticking time bomb got access to a gun and exploded. But the fact it was also important to him to document and “share” it, and then for other people to repost the video on their own pages, makes it feel even more grotesque and like we have all reached a new level of desensitization.
All of these tragedies, from Charleston to Roanoke to shaming college girls for sorority videos, get our attention and sympathy or outrage until the next something awful or public shaming goes “viral.” It kind of makes my skin crawl to see such terrible things “trending.”
As a social media user, I am as guilty as everyone else. I love scrolling through my feeds as much as anyone. It’s the number one way I access news stories from all of the local and national media sites I respect, and for that alone it is an invaluable resource, especially considering my chosen profession.
I love seeing pics of my friends’ kids and keeping up with those who live far away. I love learning about what bands are playing where or other special events, and even hokey things like home decorating tips and Halloween cupcake recipes. And there are obviously other very good things that have come out of social media campaigns, especially for charities, like the ALS Ice Bucket challenge and drives to save fledgling local businesses.
But there is something I just despise about it at the same time.
This new “look at me, look at me, listen to me, listen to me” world we live in has a darkness to it, an ever-present hostile and vitriolic environment lurking under the surface. Train wreck after train wreck we don’t even have to leave our desk or couch to rubberneck. We are voyeurs in the lives of people we don’t even know during their darkest hours.
And in addition to that, people are just online a-holes and act in a way they never would if a keyboard wasn’t involved.
Just on our own Lagniappe social media pages, I watch what should be lively-but-healthy debates devolve into vicious personal attacks. For some reason typing hate is a lot easier than saying it to a person’s face. Could you imagine if we actually had some of the conversations we have on Facebook in person? Our world would turn into a “Jerry Springer” set.
And then there is the absolute fount of misinformation. I can’t tell you how many times I see news stories online where people (some anonymously, some proudly) are offering their opinion or own sets of facts, which are often totally wrong or even libelous. Sometimes people are doing this on purpose for their own motives, sometimes they are truly just idiots. But either way, I have heard people casually reiterate this message board or social media misinformation as if it were an actual part of the story or a matter of fact. People forget lives can be damaged by this. It’s maddening.
One of the photos from Trump’s rally in Mobile a couple of weeks ago featuring a young mother holding a baby garnered a lot of national attention, as the photographer captured her in a moment where she had an extremely excited look on her face. By the next week, there were new unflattering, Photoshopped versions of the pic and a story mocking her and everyone else in the photo on the Washington Post’s website.
In an interview with the young woman after the pic went viral, she said she wasn’t even sure who she was going to support for president, she was just there to see the spectacle and laughing at how unreal the moment was. Yet, she was maligned by the Internet as a crazy Trump fanatic and had to endure hateful comment after hateful comment. Do people really deserve this sort of treatment?
I don’t know the answer. It’s just the new world we live in, I suppose, and we have to learn to navigate it the best we can. But I do fear we are becoming so numb to online hate in our virtual worlds, it’s going to continue to creep into our real ones, and we are headed for a day where the atrocities like the one last week won’t even faze us anymore. And that is a scary world to consider.