HOLMBERG: Social media gives ‘wild, wild west’ platform to killers

Posted at 1:00 AM, Aug 27, 2015
and last updated 2015-08-27 10:33:47-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Television news stations use live reports as a way to connect with you, the viewer.

Wednesday's shock-killer at Smith Mountain Lake near Roanoke used a live report the same way when he fatally shot a WDBJ reporter and photographer on live TV.

Vester Flanagan joined the ranks of murderers out not just to shock, but to deliver his message to the maximum number of people through social as well as traditional media.

It's very similar to what the terrorist group ISIS has done, said one national homeland security expert.

Not only did the shooter film the attack himself to post on social media, he waited for photographer Adam Ward to finish filming the shoreline so the shooting of reporter Alison Parker would be shown on live TV.

WDBJ reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward

WDBJ reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward

It's rather sacred territory, live television. You see the occasional idiot grabbing the mic or jumping into the shot, even a recent robbery or angry crowd.

But this was new. Which is why it made a huge splash - far, far beyond the usual double homicide. This shooter got similar attention to those who killed four or even ten times that number.

"These folks recognize that their ability to get their message out is directly correlated to the shock value," said George W. Foresman, former U.S. Undersecretary of Homeland Security.

"And what you saw at Smith Mountain Lake was a very deliberate attempt . . . to create the maximum shock. He understood the media and the message that he wanted to get out and he really accomplished it."

bryce williams

Vester Flanagan aka Bryce Williams

Vester Flanagan was an angry, failed TV reporter who wrote that he was the victim of discrimination as a gay black man.

He followed in the footsteps of his hero, Cho the Virginia Tech shooter, making sure his message got out by faxing his manifesto to ABC news and using video to drive home his act.

He said he was compelled by the racist Charleston Church massacre, ironically using similar language as that shooter, Dylan Roof, who said he was set in motion by the Trayvon Martin controversy.

Unlike earlier cases of killers who penned manifestos, the unabomber, for example. There is no media filter; no editor hitting the brakes out of fear of giving the killer the attention he craves.

It just races straight out on the web. And the traditional media has little choice but to follow.

"Those standards don't exist in the social media world," Foresman said. "It's really a wild, wild west out there in terms of how it's going to be used to elicit and incite fear among the populace."

And to deliver their message to the widest possible audience.

Foresman said the terrorist group ISIS has perfected using social media like this, not only to shock and gain notoriety, but to recruit.

"ISIS has really harnessed social media in much more insidious ways than even what we saw with Al Qaeda," he said.

They and killers like Flanagan have direct access to impressionable minds all around the world through social media, he said.

Which is why Foresman believes there's every reason for journalists out in the field to fear copycat attacks, just like we saw waves of theater and school shootings.

And that can have a chilling effect on the free press trying to do its job.

It just never seems to stop, right?

Each killer seemingly trying to one-up the last one - to make a bigger splash -  diabolically trying to hit a bigger number or add a new twist that really gets to us.

It's wild how most of them, like this guy, were pretty much failures in life. Watching his demo reel, you can see why he was let go from so many stations. And not only was he bad, he was a huge pain, always filing complaints and looking for slightest thing to be offended about, according to those who worked with him.

And yet, he mined both social and traditional media like a genius.

What's next?