The shooting and the graphic images that resulted marked a horrific turn in the national intersection of video, violence and social media.
In one sad sense there was nothing new, or even unusual, about the televised killing of two journalists in Virginia on Wednesday morning.
Death on TV has occurred with frightening regularity ever since the advent of the medium: Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President Kennedy, in 1963; and the Sept. 11, 2001, fall of the World Trade Center. The prospect of death appearing suddenly on our screens is as common as it is ghoulish.
Yet in another way, the video of the Virginia shootings posted by Bryce Williams, whose real name is Vester Lee Flanagan and who killed two former TV station co-workers, is a frightful twist in an age of online sharing and ubiquitous video documentation.
Flanagan, a former reporter who had been fired by Virginia television station WDBJ, shot and killed reporter, Alison Parker, 24, and a cameraman, Adam Ward, 27, as they broadcast live on Wednesday, officials said, recording the act on video himself and then posting the video online. He later took his own life, officials said. The person Alison Parker was interviewing, Vicki Gardner, was wounded in the attack and underwent surgery. She was listed in stable condition late Wednesday.
Flanagan’s 56-second video showed him waiting until the journalists were on air before raising a handgun and firing at point-blank range, ensuring that it would be seen, live or recorded, by thousands.
After leading the police on a high-speed pursuit, Flanagan shot himself in the head. He died later, after being airlifted to a hospital.
Flanagan, 41, had aired grievances against the station and other employees there, before and after he was dismissed two years ago.
Shortly after the shooting, a post to the gunman’s Twitter account said: “I filmed the shooting see Facebook,” and a shocking video recording from the gunman’s point of view could be seen on his Facebook page. Both accounts, which used the Bryce Williams television name, were quickly shut down.
ABC News reported that it had received a 23-page fax from Flanagan that spoke admiringly of mass killers and said that as a black, gay man he had faced discrimination and sexual harassment.
In the fax, he also wrote that the carnage was his reaction to the racism of the Charleston, S.C., church shooting, in which Dylann Roof is accused of shooting nine church members, who were black.
“Why did I do it? I put down a deposit for a gun on 6/19/15,” he wrote, according to ABC. “The church shooting in Charleston happened on 6/17/15.”
“The church shooting was the tipping point … but my anger has been building steadily … I’ve been a human powder keg for a while … just waiting to go BOOM!!!!” he wrote.
Jeffrey Marks, president and general manager of the station, confirmed Flanagan had filed a complaint against the station, but said it was dismissed as baseless.
Discussing Parker and Ward on the air, Marks said: “I cannot tell you how much they were loved.”
Both victims were romantically involved with other members of the station’s staff, Marks said. “We have other members of the team here today, holding back tears, frankly,” he said.
Parker had been dating Chris Hurst, a WDBJ anchor, he and other station employees said Wednesday.
“She was the most radiant woman I ever met,” Hurst wrote on Twitter. “And for some reason she loved me back. She loved her family, her parents and her brother.”
Hurst said Ward, who was engaged, and Parker had worked together regularly.
According to his LinkedIn page, Flanagan was a multimedia journalist at WDBJ, but left the station in February 2013 after less than a year. He previously worked at television stations across the South, including in Greenville, N.C.; Savannah, Ga.; and Tallahassee, Fla. His online profile said he had earned a bachelor’s degree from San Francisco State University.
The killings appear to have been skillfully engineered for maximum distribution, and to sow maximum dread, over Twitter, Facebook and mobile phones. The video Flanagan shows is an up-close, first-person execution. It was posted only after his social-media accounts had become widely known, and while the police were in pursuit.
Unlike previous televised deaths, these were not merely broadcast, but widely and virally distributed, playing out with the complicity of thousands, perhaps millions, of social-networking users who could not help watching and sharing.
The horror was the dawning realization, as the video spread across the networks, that the killer had anticipated the moves, that he had been counting on the mechanics of these services and the inability for many to resist passing on what had been posted.
For many, that realization came too late. On these services, the killer knew, retweet, like or share are often hit before users realize what they have done.
Twitter and Facebook moved quickly to suspend the accounts. But not quickly enough. By the time his social presence had come down, his videos had been shared widely by journalists and ordinary users, jumping beyond the Internet onto morning TV broadcasts, and downloaded and reposted across the Internet — where, with some searching, they will most likely remain accessible indefinitely.
Also found after the killings was a demo reel posted to YouTube, showing Flanagan’s various appearances as a TV news anchor and reporter. It is unsurprising, given his familiarity with the subject, that he appeared well-versed with what has become the media ritual of killing.
He seems to have known, for instance, that in a nation in which tens of thousands of people are killed by firearms every year, the shooting of two people would not become international news if it was not filmed: as is commonly said online, “Pics, or it didn’t happen.” So he waited until WDBJ’s cameras were broadcasting live before he acted.
But as a newshound, he seems also to have understood the morbid irresistibility of the citizen-produced video — the shaky, point-of-view, ground level, continuously looped recording of any incident that has become a commonplace spectacle on television news. Thus, he made sure to produce his own video as well. In the practice of our mobile age, he held his camera vertically, in one hand, allowing him to hold his gun in the other.
He might have anticipated, too, that in any widely covered shooting, reporters now rush to do an Internet search on the killer as soon as a name leaks out. Flanagan was ready, his social accounts prepared with a professional picture and childhood photos. Then, as soon as his name began to be mentioned online, he appeared to have logged in to Twitter and Facebook to begin posting the outlines of a defense and an explanation, as well as his own clip of the killings.
There was initially some doubt on Twitter about the authenticity of the killer’s account, justified skepticism, because the quickly pulled-together profile of a shooter has also become a hallmark of the ritual in which these incidents are covered.
But then the killer’s account, @bryce_williams7, began updating live, erasing all doubt.
Over the course of 20 minutes on Twitter, the shooter updated his status a half-dozen times, culminating in a post showing the video of the killings. He quickly amassed a following of thousands, the sort of rapturous social-media welcome usually reserved for pop stars and heads of state.
There was uncertainty in the sharing. Users expressed reservations as they passed on the gunman’s profile and his tweets. People were calling on Twitter and Facebook to act quickly to pull down the accounts.
There were questions about the journalistic ethics of posting WDBJ’s live shot and the killer’s own document of the shooting, given that it was exactly what he had been expecting.
But these questions didn’t really slow anything down, a testament to the power of these networks to tap into each of our subconscious, automatic desires to witness and to share.
The videos got out widely, forging a new path for a killer to gain a moment in the media spotlight: an example that, given its success, may be followed by others.