Twitter, Facebook Shooting Clips Enflame Media Violence Debate

Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. became the unwitting conduits of video of a shooting on live TV that killed a Virginia news reporter and a cameraman, enflaming debate over when it’s OK to show violence on social media.

Two videos were uploaded showing the shooter’s perspective of the incident on Facebook and Twitter, where they started to go viral. The footage was quickly removed from both sites. Twitter users, including a number of journalists, had urged others to not retweet the account that posted the clips.

“Our #WDBJ crew was literally ambushed this morning,” Brent Watts, the chief meteorologist at the station, wrote in a tweet. “Please DO NOT share, or post the video.”

The episode added a new wrinkle to the polemics over where social-media companies should draw the line on violent content. It may be the first time a shooter posted video of himself in the act on a social network, said Cliff Lampe, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information. Depictions of violence are usually from a third-person perspective, and any widely shared posting can set off a public discussion over whether it should be taken down, as well as a race to remove footage quickly when deemed inappropriate.

“Twitter mostly handles this on a case-by-case basis,” Lampe said. “It’s very much a human judgment on Twitter’s part about what content is blocked and what is not.”

Reporter Alison Parker of WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia, was conducting an interview at Smith Mountain Lake during a live broadcast Wednesday morning, when she and cameraman Adam Ward were shot and killed. The man identified as the shooter, Vester Flanagan, later shot himself on a nearby interstate and died at an area hospital, authorities said.

Social Rules

Both Twitter and Facebook have removed the accounts that posted the videos. Jim Prosser, a spokesman for Twitter, pointed to company’s media policy, which says it can delete tweets and suspend accounts in violation of its rules. Users can’t post threats of violence, promote violence or use excessively violent media in profile, header or background images.

Facebook’s community standards prohibit using the platform for criminal activity as well as to celebrate crimes committed.

“We have removed a profile and a page for violating our Community Standards,” Andrew Souvall, a spokesman for Facebook, said in an e-mail.

Disturbing Content

Twitter has had to address disturbing content before. Last August, the site removed graphic images purporting to show the beheading of American journalist James Foley.

Lampe said Twitter’s policies on violent content seem to depend on whether a victim’s family might be hurt by the content being shared. Twitter typically doesn’t take down graphic images of violence in the Middle East, he said.

As of 5 p.m., at least four copies of the videos remained accessible on YouTube. A number of Twitter users included links of the footage on the video-sharing website in their tweets.

“People are posting content almost as quickly as they can take it down,” Lampe said. “While it’s easy for Twitter to ban an account, with YouTube, multiple people can make copies of videos and upload it.”

Zayna Aston, a spokeswoman for YouTube, didn’t respond to voicemails seeking comment.