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Horrific Virginia shooting shows the power and danger of social media

Social media is an incredibly powerful tool. It's not without good reason that ad campaigns start on Twitter and Facebook in the hope of going viral. As with any medium, social media is full of positive and negative content. Content you're interested in seeing, and stuff you really aren't.

But the difference with the likes of Facebook and Twitter is that you're not always in control of what you see. The horrific shooting live on TV in Virginia highlight this perfectly. As with any tragedy or big news story, many were quick to take to social networks to share information and thoughts. They also shared video footage of the killings which automatically played in people's timelines.

With traditional media - newspapers, TV, even regular websites - it's easy to pick and choose what you want to consume. If you want to read about global war, you can. If you'd prefer to focus only on fluffy news, you can do that too. It could be argued that on social media you are indicating the type of content you would like to see by the choices you make with regard to the people and organisations you follow or befriend. But social media is very different to traditional media. As well as the content you have chosen to see, you also see what other have chosen to share as well as suggested or curated content from the network itself.

Vester Flanagan understood the power of the media - traditional and social. He wanted to leave his mark in more ways than one, and the easiest way to amplify an already horrific act was to commit it not only on live TV, but also to record the act ready to push to social networks. As we know, this is exactly what happened. He posted the footage online, and it was shared by countless people. Some may have shared it out of disbelief, others out of sick morbidity. Whatever the reasons behind sharing, the point is that it was shared.

This in itself is not really an issue. Facebook took editorial decisions in many instances to take down copies of the video as they were posted, but on both Facebook and Twitter, it quickly became uncontrollable. The footage spread like wildfire, and while some may have been keen to view the killings - it's certainly not something you see every day; this was an historic event - this was not the case in every instance. Both Facebook and Twitter have a video autoplay option that means there's no need to hit the play button - as soon as a video scrolls into view, it starts to play.

The upshot of this was that lots of social media users found that their timelines were home not just to news of live-on-TV killings, not just still images of the victims, but moving footage of the onscreen deaths. Death of real people. Actual lives snuffed out in an instant, and shared for all to see. For those with the autoplay setting enabled there was no warning, the murders were essentially forced upon people.

The moral rights and wrongs of the availability of this footage is a separate issue, this is a question of choice. It is one thing to have a desire to see such footage, to seek it out and watch it, it is quite another to be caught unawares and be assaulted by it.

All of this is not to say that autoplaying videos are right or wrong, but recent events certainly give food for thought and may well cause many people to re-evaluate the settings they have in place.

In the wake of what has happened, there are clearly bigger concerns, but it certainly shows that greater thought needs to be given to how we used social media. Perhaps social networks need to do more to educate their users. Perhaps we need to toughen up. Perhaps video vetting is needed.

There is no ideal solution, but it needs to be talked about.

Photo credit: Diego Schtutman / Shutterstock