Social media has allowed the world to watch as horrific events, like the shootings at a south Florida high school that left 17 dead this past week, unfold in real time.
Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland Fla., posted videos and photos on Snapchat and Instagram that documented their experiences as they happened, providing the public with an unabridged account of the incident.
“These adolescents gave this story a sense of power that mainstream media has not been able to do in a long time,” said Jeffrey Dvorkin, the director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto.
This has become a central theme of mass tragedies in recent years. First-hand accounts are posted to social media in real time, which become a primary source of public information as well as key elements of media coverage.
Similar scenarios unfolded in Newtown, Conn. in 2012, as well as in Las Vegas in 2017, both of which left virtual onlookers outraged. However, experts told Global News there are several things about the online chronicling of the shootings in Florida that make it unique.
“This one seems to have been a tipping point, that the use of social media by high school students gave the public a real time connection to a horrific event,” explained Dvorkin.
Snapchat was one of the platforms most used by Marjory Stoneman Douglas students to post videos of the event, and Dvorkin notes that Snapchat attracts a notably younger user base than Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
“I think it did have a much more powerful impact because the people who were viewing these images were younger. There’s just something about the intensity of the use of social media by adolescents that gives us a sense of horror,” he said.
Gordon Gow, an associate professor of communication at the University of Alberta, notes that the images and videos of the Florida school shooting on social media lack the same filters as mainstream media coverage, which is part of what makes them so potent.
“Social media really disables some of the traditional filters we would normally have through broadcasting,” he said.
In addition, he noted that in this case many people likely learned of the shootings on social media first rather than finding out through mainstream media sources.
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Furthermore, Gow emphasizes that the public outcry that often stems from viewing graphic social media posts can influence public opinion on certain issues — in this case, gun control.
“The power that social media does have, would be to potentially change public opinion,” Gow explained.
Both Dvorkin and Gow agree that as social media becomes the first place people go to share moments of trauma like mass shootings and other tragic events, we run the risk of driving social media users away from these stories.
“I think, the more you’re exposed to something, the more it becomes familiar. I don’t think people become desensitized as much as they just become unwilling to watch any longer,” explained Gow.
Dvorkin added that this could eventually become an obstacle to social media being a force for change.
“We’re at the point where social media has become such a powerful presence that people might become resistant to it,” explained Dvorkin. “That’s because the violence is without any kind of context. Studies show a measurable turning away effect when crime is presented out of context, without the possibility of escape. People turn away.”