As a teenage boy in Florida moved through his high school murdering people on Tuesday, students posted about their experience on social media in real time. A user called Aidan Minoff tweeted, “My school is being shot up and I am locked inside. I’m fucking scared right now,” along with pictures. On NBC’s site, you can see a video taken from Snapchat of bullets being fired into a classroom while teenagers scream. (It’s very disturbing.) The alleged shooter, Nikolas Cruz, had an Instagram feed full of guns.
Social media made headlines in the wake of the terrible shooting in Las Vegas last year, when false accusations and other hoaxes spread across Twitter. Several Twitter users were revealed to have claimed they had family among the victims, although they did not. One tweet supposedly from the Florida school by a user named “Heather” has been widely reproduced online, as in this Slate piece, but its authenticity seems questionable. Twitter is always incensed by senators who offer “thoughts and prayers” to the families of victims, in between taking payments from the National Rifle Association. It’s not new for social media to react.
But citizen reportage from within school shootings, live, is new. Very real changes take place to the texture of current events when the means by which they are represented changes. Consider how the invention of personal video systems both helped to kick off and then to shape the coverage of the L.A. riots in 1992. Handheld cameras, once popularized, instantly gave citizen-filmed footage the “look” of truth. That’s why Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield are extra scary, and extra-convincing.
Watching a Snapchat video from the middle of a school shooting feels at first surreal, then very quickly normal. There’s a temptation to throw up one’s hands and bemoan the brandedness of the whole thing—every mention of Snapchat in the coverage of this shooting bolsters its corporate image. It’s not a neutral technology. Not even the phone in your camera is a neutral technology. Somebody owns it.
But we should get used to the brandedness of social-media communications. President Trump has himself transformed Twitter, from a medium for talking to one’s friends into a personal-announcement megaphone from the world’s most powerful and least impulse-controlling man. The context of the Florida shooting’s social-media posts—the fact that they’re making money for a company that also makes money from silly puppy filters, the way that the industry has been changed by Trump—lends the whole event a dystopian feel, a sense of living in an awful future that none of us could have predicted. But if personal social-media feeds give kids a voice while they’re experiencing terrible violence, that sense of increased agency cannot be an entirely negative development.