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How do we stop killers from exploiting social media?

We stop paying attention to them

Jay Paul/Getty Images

Editor's note: We are presenting this story again in light of the horrifying events in Orlando, Florida on Sunday. A terrorist attack on a gay nightclub — the largest mass shooting in US history — killed at least 50 people. As we learn more about the hateful attack, as in other mass shootings that have plagued the US in recent years, a troublesome media cycle may repeat itself.

The shooter yesterday, at Bridgewater Plaza in Moneta, Virginia, optimized his murders for attention. This isn’t new. All mass murderers want attention. Mass shootings are violence that is meant to be disseminated.

Consider the Charleston church shootings, in which a white supremacist killed Clementa C. Pinckney and eight others. Or the 2014 Isla Vista shootings, in which an angry young man murdered six people and wounded 14. Or even the Columbine High School shootings, well before the internet dominated the media as it does today. All of these shootings included manifestos. Each killer meant for us to pay attention; each killer figured his individual death didn’t matter — the shooting would ensure his immortality.

we, the viewers, are now responsible for what we pay attention toOnce, our interactions with these killers were mediated by huge media gatekeepers — their manifestos were left at their homes, or sent to newspapers and TV stations. If the manifestos appeared at all, they were quoted from, rather than released in full. This is no longer the case.

I do not mean to defend the practice of media gatekeeping; often it has not been especially ethical. I mean to note, mainly, that it is gone, and that you, the viewer, are now responsible for making the choices about what you pay attention to, what you help spread, and what you ignore in a way that is entirely unprecedented. This is particularly relevant in the case of mass murder, since it is attention-seeking violence. And attention can beget copycat killings.

Mass murders exhibit signs of social contagion. We know that media reports of suicides increase the likelihood of suicide — a phenomenon called suicide contagion. In 2012, Zeynep Tufekci suggested this might be the case and offered ethical ways to report on mass murder without spreading the contagion, based on the guidelines around suicides. This was prescient; an FBI report released last year showed that active shooting events have been growing in the last 14 years. An average of 11 mass murders occurred each year from 2000 to 2013, with "an increasing trend"; 486 people were killed and 557 were injured during that period.

Part of what inspires would-be mass murderers is the attention Then, this July, a study published in PLOS One found evidence of mass murder contagion. "There is no significant evidence of contagion in mass shootings that involve three or fewer people killed," the authors wrote. That may indicate "the much higher frequency of such events compared with mass killings and school shootings reduces their relative sensationalism, and thus reduces their contagiousness." The study has limitations; one of them is that the authors had to use private databases for the analyses, as there is no federal database that tracks these types of murders.

But given the available evidence, it seems part of what inspires would-be mass murderers is the attention — that shooters are successful in getting their messages out. That was made clear from reporting on the Bridgewater Plaza shooter, who cited other mass murderers in his manifesto as inspiration. And his specific actions seem designed to wrest the maximum amount of attention from gatekeeper-less social networks. He murdered Alison Parker and Adam Ward on live television, and then uploaded his own video of the killing to his Twitter account and his Facebook account. Twitter and Facebook, in their ongoing quests to be more attractive to advertisers, default to auto-playing video; anyone watching the shooter’s account would have simply seen the video start to play. Basically everything on the internet, but especially on social media, is built to capture your attention. So are mass shootings. In some ways, the marriage of the two felt inevitable.

Basically everything on the internet is built to capture your attention. So are mass shootings

The Bridgewater Plaza shooter is notable for his sophisticated knowledge of how media dissemination works. This makes sense, since he was a reporter — his Twitter account was essentially a press kit. He wanted you to pay attention to him.

What if you didn’t?

Publications are no longer the only way sensational news spreads In some sense, everyone is a journalist now — so now we all need to think about how to be gatekeepers for our own networks. Journalism has long had ethical guidelines around suicide, where the contagion effect is well studied. "Excessive suicide reporting" is known to be a contagion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "How-to" descriptions, a detailed blow-by-blow of deaths, also make things worse. So does glorifying the person who died by suicide. This work can roughly be adapted to our individual approach to mass murderers, too, as Tufekci suggested in 2012. Given the rise of social media, it’s worth considering these standards in your own personal social media consumption as well; publications are no longer the only way sensational news spreads.

You may notice I am identifying incidents without naming the shooters; this is deliberate. I suspect paying ethical attention to these murderers includes denying them fame. I do not think that means we cannot discuss these incidents; what I hope, instead, is that we take more care in how we do so.

Take, again, the Bridgewater Plaza murders. They were meant to be distributed as widely as possible. The shooter knew some people would want to watch the video and share it. Some people did; essentially, they obeyed him and gave him the power he wanted. Facebook and Twitter eventually shut down his pages, but this is the internet; the video was already elsewhere.

You can refuse to participate in the mechanism of infamy What if, instead of focusing on the individual shooter and profiling his personal pathology, we chose to focus on the structural issues that formed him and all the others. Why are people willing to murder to be famous, and how do we avoid giving them the means to do it? I do not know the answer to the first part of that question. I suspect part of the answer to the second is to stop making them famous. (Gun control wouldn’t be a bad solution, here, either.)

Another thing to keep in mind: you’re not just a gatekeeper for your own attention, but also for anyone in your social media network. You don’t have to disseminate the manifesto. You don’t have to share the profile of the shooter. You don’t have to link to the video. You can refuse to participate in the mechanism of infamy. By doing so, you remove some of the motive for future shootings. Remember, these shooters are trying to assert power. You do not have to give them any. You can’t prevent them from having taken lives, but you can choose not to make them symbols. You can choose not to make them famous.

Treat shooters as what they are: data points in some especially grim statistics This is work, deciding what we should pay attention to, what we remember, what is worthy of our sustained attention. If we all, individually, refuse to make shooters famous, we may not stop shootings — but we can certainly remove some motivation for troubled individuals in the future. And if we aren’t focusing so hard on whether or not this guy was "a loner" or "troubled" or "quiet" or whatever, maybe we’ll be able to focus on the other things that contribute to this phenomenon: the ready access to guns and ammunition, for instance. These are not individual incidents anymore. We are looking at an epidemic. When mass shootings are as common as they’ve been in recent years, we cannot and should not treat each individual killer as an aberration. I suggest we treat them as what they are: data points in some especially grim statistics; I suggest we look for patterns instead of learning their names.

That’s a heavy responsibility, and we won’t always succeed at living up to it. But we can practice, again and again, until it’s habit. And in so doing, we can, perhaps, prevent copycat killings. If a mass murder results in the canonization of the victims rather than endless profiles of the murderer, perhaps fewer disturbed people will seek murder as a way of establishing their own fame and power. If a mass murder is viewed in context with other murders — if each incident has less individual power — not only do patterns emerge for preventing other shootings in the future, each individual killer has less power to assert.

The shooter killed other people so he would feel like less of a loser. Thwart him: forget his name. You’re the gatekeeper; you can participate in this process. Yes, it’s hard not to be curious. But consider: with the free time left over from ignoring the specific shooter, you can begin to think, instead, about how else we might be able to end this epidemic.