The Virginia shootings and a killer who understood the power of social media

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

On Wednesday morning, a snuff film went viral on social media channels. The 56-second video, which depicted the 6:45 am shooting deaths of WDBJ7 reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, was filmed vertically with a smartphone as if optimized for Snapchat. Treated as a breaking news event, the video was the sick work of a former colleague of the victims, Vester Lee Flanagan, a onetime television anchor and "multimedia journalist" who went by the name Bryce Williams professionally. By 11:30 am, Flanagan had been captured by police after turning his gun on himself.


As a multimedia journalist, Flanagan would understand the power of imagery and social media, and it seems that he treated his attack like a story he was working on, pitching it to ABC News in the weeks before the murder (though what the story was remained vague until the outlet received his manifesto by fax Wednesday). Flanagan's literacy and savviness around how news is created and distributed— particularly around mass shooters, some of whom he named in his manifesto — was on full display during his homicidal spree: In addition to approaching his victims while they were filming for live TV so that his attack would be documented from their perspective and immediately broadcast, Flanagan made sure to record and upload his own version of the events to Facebook and Twitter.

This is, as far as I know, the first time a first-person video has been made with a smartphone by a lone-wolf murdering maniac. An act of diabolical stunt journalism, Flanagan's actions were met by those online with shock, but also assistance. Outlets and individuals who would never share, say, beheading videos filmed by ISIS, quickly began retweeting and resharing his abomination. To the disgust of many, on Facebook and Twitter — where videos now auto-play by default as a way for those platforms to maximize encounters with digital content — people who wouldn't have sought out the snuff film had it forced upon them and saw a video very few people would want to see.

Content creators quickly began chopping up Flanagan's footage to make it even easier to find and digest. Reportedly, a news outlet from First Look Media that exists solely on Twitter, tweeted stills from the video along with vivid descriptions of the shooting. (Regret arrived more slowly than the impulse to share. Eventually, the worst of the screenshots made by Reportedly were deleted and an apology issued.) Though Twitter and Facebook suspended Flanagan's accounts within an hour or so, numerous people who had downloaded the video for sharing posted it to YouTube.

Mining social media and the web for the digital footprints of criminals and murderers is not new, and it is common for killers to leave carefully constructed bits of evidence and manifestos to be discovered after they've taken lives (including, often, their own). But what feels different about the killings today is the way in which Flanagan knew not just how to optimize his crime for the information age but anticipated the way in which his actions would be quickly amplified, even to those who might have no interest in engaging with them at all.

I desperately hope this isn't something we see more of in the future, but fear that others will learn from a killer who understood the power of social media. The fact is that when you combine social media optimization with age-old human curiosity, you get the mass distribution of horror we saw today.