Are Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and other social platforms to blame for the rise in mass shootings?

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Once again, it is crucial to remember that social media did not exist during this era, and that the closest site resembling a social media platform at this time was Six Degrees, a site used for blogging and instant messaging (Hale, 2015). The analysis revealed that Columbine’s media coverage consisted mainly of newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, and television reports. Due to this lack of immediacy, the public did not receive information as quickly about the shooting, ultimately causing both rumors to spread and individuals to remain unaware of the incident (Shepard, n.d.). Interestingly, media coverage on Columbine hit its peak on the second day after the shooting took place (Schildkraut & Muschert, 2013). This would not be the case today, due to the neverending news cycle and rise of popular social media platforms.

Columbine’s coverage also revealed one large difference from today’s mass shooting coverage, being that the news reports did not include any type of video from the actual shooting besides the school’s security footage. Today, it is common to see videos posted on Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat from the viewpoint of victims involved in the actual shooting.

In 1999, students did not have cellphones with cameras capable of taking video. Instead, they mainly used beepers, pagers, and landlines to communicate (Jones, 2009). It is important to note that a majority of the images included in news coverage back then were shots of the scene outside by photographers and news crews (Arenstein, 2018). This difference partially explains why media coverage of Columbine was delayed. Because news reporters and news stations did not have images and videos of the shooting itself, they had to collect accurate information through phone calls and interviews with victims and witnesses (Mannino, 2012).

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Media coverage of the Columbine massacre would look different if the shooting had happened in today’s digital world. Most likely, the incident would take over the digital space, producing millions of posts, tweets, and shares. The public would be notified on their smartphones instantly and videos from the shooting would be replayed all over television news. After analyzing the media coverage of a mass shooting in 1999, one is able to recognize just how much of a role social media has played in the amplification of news in these crisis situations. For this reason, it is instructive to compare Columbine’s media coverage to Virginia Tech’s media coverage, the difference being that Virginia Tech occurred eight years later when major social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter became popular.

Virginia Tech

On April 16, 2007, in Blacksburg, Virginia, 32 people were shot and killed on Virginia Tech’s campus. The Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, was a senior at the time. This shooting took place over the course of two and a half hours, with the first and second half of the shooting separated by Cho’s decision to stop and mail a “confession” package to NBC News (“How the Virginia Tech,” 2007). After studying the media coverage that resulted from this horrific event, it is clear that the coverage reflects the media era in which the shooting took place. By 2007, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were being used in full force and a majority of the public received news updates from websites, blogs, and other online resources.

The digital landscape in 2007 clearly changed since Columbine in 1999, and the coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting, both traditional and social, clearly highlights this difference. In 2007, Pew Research reported that the Virginia Tech shooting was the single most covered story in the news that year. In the five days following the Virginia Tech shooting, records show that more than half of all news coverage was devoted to updates on the incident (“Biggest Story by Week,” 2007).

Along with traditional television and radio broadcasts, Facebook and Twitter appeared to be the primary social media platforms used to spread news about the shooting. Immediately after the attack, Facebook was used by students on digital and mobile devices to notify others that they were safe and alive. This is something that Columbine students were not able to do due to the limitations of the technology at the time. The platform was also used by the public to create certain support groups, such as “Christians Praying for Virginia Tech” and “Canada Supports Virginia Tech” (Pelofsky, 2007).

These groups created a lot of attention, each group containing hundreds to thousands of members. On the other hand, Twitter also played a crucial role in the spreading of news about the shooting, with multiple celebrities, bloggers, news stations, and media outlets commenting on the violent attack. For example, WLWT.com tweeted at 1:14 that afternoon, “Waiting for confirmation that at least 30 are dead in Virginia Tech shooting, including the gunman,” and soon after, NTV News tweeted, “33 Dead in Virginia Tech shooting.

The gunman chained shut the doors of a hall before opening fire. The gunman killed himself.” Twitter history shows that hundreds of tweets were coming in every couple of minutes, constantly updating the public on additional details. These social media platforms became vital sources of information not only for the victims involved in the shooting, but also for those all over the world who wanted to know what happened in Blacksburg, Virginia that afternoon.

Media coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting only intensified when information was released concerning the package that Cho had sent to NBC. The network received the package in New York and found it to contain photographs, videos, and an 1,800-word manifesto explaining his malicious behavior. The material shows Cho’s anger, frustration, and resentment. In one of the videos, Cho says, “I didn’t have to do this. I could have left. I could have fled. But no, I will no longer run. It’s not for me. For my children, for my brothers and sisters that you f—, I did it for them” (Johnson, 2007).

Cho’s behavior reveals just how desperate he was to become recognized within the public eye. He took time out of his attack to physically send a news station several materials to explain himself. It is assumed that Cho did this with a desire for fame. After NBC posted online some of the materials, the network received public backlash. More than 1,200 comments were posted on NBC’s message board in response to Cho’s mailed materials in less than 12 hours (Johnson, 2007).