This week marks a loss of innocence not just for many individuals, but for our culture. Thanks to technology, we are the society that witnesses everything when we open our laptops or turn on our smart phones. Virtually nothing is hidden any longer. But if we hope to preserve our souls and sanity, perhaps it’s time we re-learn the lost art of looking away.
Last Wednesday morning, a pair of Roanoke, Va., news broadcasters were on site filming a live interview when a man quietly walked up beside them and aimed his pistol. The man was Vester Flanagan, a former coworker of the two journalists, who believed he’d been systematically wronged and mistreated, and wanted to take revenge. No one noticed him until he began pulling the trigger, firing point-blank at 24-year-old newscaster Alison Parker. He then turned the gun on cameraman Adam Ward (27), and Vicki Gardner, the woman being interviewed. When he stopped firing, two lay dead and a third was critically injured. It was a horrific double murder with far-reaching consequences. But one thing set it apart from all others: It was broadcast, not just on live television for thousands to witness, but uploaded shortly afterward to social media, where it confronted untold droves of users likely sipping their morning coffee and expecting videos of cats or their friends’ babies.
The chilling footage shot by Flanagan, better known by his on-air name, Bryce Williams, gunning down his unsuspecting former colleagues is something no one needs to watch — at least no one who lacks police credentials. But it may be the harbinger of a new type of crime some are dubbing “the selfie murder.” The killing happened on live television, shot by the cameraman seconds before he, himself, was shot. That alone should leave us stunned. But Ward’s wasn’t the only camera rolling that morning. Flanagan taped from his point of view as well, capturing a stomach-churning clip he promptly uploaded to social media.
Twitter and Facebook quickly disabled his accounts, nipping the video’s viral spread in the bud. But thanks to both platforms’ new auto-play feature, for thousands — maybe millions — it was too late. They’d seen what Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic calls “an unmistakable snuff video,” and may never be able to forget.
Within hours of the killing, police cornered Flanagan, who turned the gun on himself, having made his mark on the families of his victims and the masses online. But Meyer thinks the incident ought to leave us asking questions about how social media works, particularly new features like auto-play.
Introduced last year by Facebook and this summer by Twitter, auto-play means users no longer have to click on videos to see them. As soon as they scroll by on their newsfeed, videos begin playing on their own. For those with limits on bandwidth or patience, it’s a minor annoyance. But when a video like Flanagan’s shows up on our newsfeeds, it exploits a critical weakness that means anyone — including children — can and likely will see what cold-blooded murder looks like.
Meyer points to research that suggests mass-shootings and extravagant suicides are contagious. So-called “copycat crimes” frequently follow videos like last week’s. And attention is precisely what killers hope to generate by uploading their crimes. But auto-play, described by Twitter as “a more streamlined consumption experience,” takes the problem to a new level.
Of course, users who don’t care for the feature can always disable it. But for the tens of millions who never give default settings a second glance, perhaps a “more streamlined consumption experience” isn’t the best idea. In a year of nude celebrity photo leaks, ISIS beheading and burning videos, and selfie murders, an Internet that leaps off the screen unbidden might be the last thing we need. The Web has changed our lives by offering us a world of information and imagery at the tap of a screen. But perhaps the time has come to ask ourselves: Do we really want it bypassing the tap?
The Psalmist famously resolved to “set no worthless thing” before his eyes (Psalm 101:3). Pastors have often quoted the verse in reference to pornography, but it has relevance to anything lacking truth, nobility, righteousness, purity, or loveliness (Philippians 4:8).
It’s tempting to partake of social media’s virtual omniscience. The promise of being up-to-the- minute on the world is part of what makes Twitter and Facebook so addicting. But there comes a time when Christians have to staunch the flow of information and images, not in order to miss out on life, but to preserve its wellspring (Proverbs 4:23). Whether that means disabling auto-play or giving up social media altogether — averting our gazes does more than keep murderers from getting the attention they crave. It keeps us from becoming just a little bit more like them through the loss of our moral sensitivity. And whatever that looks like for each of us, maybe it’s time for all of us to reconsider our need to witness everything. Maybe some things are better left unseen — and some videos better left unplayed.