August 27, 2015 9:45 am
Updated: August 27, 2015 6:53 pm

Twitter, Facebook criticized for auto-playing Virginia shooting videos


WATCH ABOVE: Social media users are outraged after videos of the Virginia shooting auto-played without their knowledge. Mark McAllister reports.

TORONTO – Social media users looked on in horror Wednesday as details of the brazen murder of two journalists live on air unfolded on social networks around the world.

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While many took to their Twitter or Facebook accounts simply to share condolences for reporter Alison Parker, 24, and photographer Adam Ward, 27, of local Virginia television station WDBJ-7, many were bombarded with graphic images of the attack.

READ MORE: Suspect in deadly shooting of 2 Virginia journalists dies after shooting self

Shortly after 11 a.m., a social media user by the name of Bryce Williams, the on-air name used by gunman Vester Lee Flanagan, uploaded two videos showing what appeared to be a first-person perspective of the shooting. Thanks to the video autoplay feature used by sites like Facebook and Twitter, many users unintentionally witnessed the graphic first-hand account.

“Nobody expects to open twitter to find retweets of murder filling their timeline. Nobody expects their friends to be the ones to retweet it,” wrote one Twitter user.

“To be suddenly watching senseless violence and death, without warning or preamble or consent, would be a shock to the system for most people.”

The tragedy has renewed calls for social networking companies to revisit how they police the autoplay feature, which is known to be used to increase user engagement and boost views for advertisers.

“Today’s events put both companies [Facebook and Twitter] in awkward positions, raising questions about how they’ll treat a feature that makes their products more dynamic and is loved by the advertisers who pay their bills,” wrote Buzzfeed reporter Alex Kantrowitz.

Both Twitter and Facebook were quick to remove the videos and disable Williams’ profile – however, the video had already been duplicated and shared by other users. Some of those duplicates inevitably ended up on YouTube.

A Twitter spokesperson said the company does not comment on individual accounts. Facebook disabled the profile page created by the suspect for violating its community standards, which prohibits users from “celebrating any crimes” they have committed.

A Google spokeswoman told The Wall Street Journal, “YouTube has clear policies against videos of gratuitous violence and we remove them when they’re flagged.”

This isn’t the first time social networks have come under fire for their handling of graphic imagery. Both Twitter and YouTube have rushed to remove beheading videos posted by terrorist group ISIS.

READ MORE: Grieving U.S. TV station regroups for newscast after deaths

In fact, many pointed out that Twitter was noticeably fast when it came to removing the videos showing the first-hand account of the shooting. According to The Wall Street Journal, it only took Twitter 8 minutes to disable the account tweeting the videos. In August 2014, it took several hours for the social network to remove a video posted by ISIS depicting the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley.

“It’s like showing those beheadings,” Alison Parker’s father Andy Parker told The Washington Post. “I am not going to watch it. I can’t watch it. I can’t watch any news. All it would do is rip out my heart further than it already is.”

Global News reached out to both Facebook and Twitter asking whether or not they are reviewing their policy on how quickly they remove disturbing content.

A Twitter spokesperson told Global News the autoplay feature and how it affects Twitter’s policies has been discussed “extensively” internally since the Virginia shooting.

A Facebook spokesperson said the company already works very quickly to take down videos that aren’t allowed on its platform, but didn’t elaborate any further.

Some of the responsibility is left to users

Though sites like Twitter and Facebook work to remove content that violates their policies, some of the responsibility is left up to the user when sharing sensitive content.

For example, Twitter requires users use media settings to mark any sensitive content they upload.

“Your Tweet media settings allow you to label your media for the appropriate viewers, and select whose media will display on your Twitter homepage. Remember that your audience is potentially made up of millions of people, and that not all media is suitable for everyone,” reads Twitter’s help centre.

“If another user notices that you have not marked your media appropriately, that user may flag your image or video for review.”

READ MORE: Workplace violence: The psychology of a disgruntled employee who kills

If a user marks their upload as “sensitive,” users will be required to click through a warning message before the video is played.

Twitter also allows users to opt in to see sensitive content by default. You can control this in your account settings.

Facebook, on the other hand, relies on users to report inappropriate or abusive content before it takes action.

“We remove things that don’t follow the Facebook Terms (ex: nudity, bullying, graphic violence, spam),” reads Facebook’s website. “If you come across something on Facebook that doesn’t follow the Facebook Terms, use the report link near the post or photo to submit a report.

How to turn off autoplay

If you wish to disable autoplay video features altogether, here’s how:


If you are using Facebook on a computer, you can disable autoplay from your main settings menu. Click the upside down triangle, located at the top right of your homepage, click “Settings,” and select “Videos” from the left hand column. From there, click the drop down menu and select “off” to disable autoplay.

If you are using the Facebook app on your smartphone, find the main settings menu (usually located in the “More” column), select the “Videos and Photos” option, tap on “autoplay” and select “never play videos automatically.”


If you are using Twitter on a computer,  you can disable autoplay from your main settings menu, which you can find by clicking on your profile photo in the top right hand side of your homepage. Click “Settings,” scroll down to “Content” and un-check the box beside “Video Autoplay.” Make sure you then click “Save Changes.”

You can also opt in to see sensitive content by default under this setting – you will notice that the box that reads “Do not inform me before showing media that may be sensitive,” will be automatically selected.

If you are using the Twitter app on your smartphone, tap on your profile page and select the gear icon next to “Edit Profile.” Select “Settings,” and then “Video Autoplay.” Finally, select “never play videos automatically.”

© 2015 Shaw Media

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