In the immediate aftermath of a shooting Wednesday morning in Southwest Virginia that unfolded on live television and left a reporter and cameraman dead, WDBJ7 anchor Chris Hurst tweeted that he and the reporter, Alison Parker, had been in love:
“We didn’t share this publicly, but @AParkerWDBJ7 and I were very much in love. We just moved in together. I am numb.”
“It was the best nine months of our lives,” Hurst wrote, less than three hours after the incident. He said that he and Parker wanted to be married.
Parker, a morning reporter at the station, was fatally shot alongside cameraman Adam Ward by a former employee of the CBS affiliate, according to police. Ward fell to the ground as his own fiancee, Melissa Ott, watched the shooting in real time in the control room at the Roanoke station.
A third person – Vicki Gardner, who was being interviewed live by Parker at the time of the shooting – was also shot. Gardner was taken to Roanoke Memorial Hospital for surgery.
By now, journalists and their audiences are used to seeing the aftermaths of mass shootings play out on social media. As has happened before, Reddit and Twitter lit up Wednesday morning with theories – all of which turned out to be incorrect – about the identity of the shooter, after Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said authorities believed the gunman was a disgruntled station employee.
But as the frantic search for the gunman continued, the role of social media in the story of this shooting deepened to an almost unprecedented point.
Footage of the shooting itself, captured and broadcast from Ward’s camera, circulated widely, even as the station announced that the two had died.
Then, hours later, social media appeared to become evidence: An account that appeared to be connected to the suspected gunman – identified as Vester Lee Flanagan II by authorities, but known in the broadcast industry as Bryce Williams – began to tweet.
It was four hours after the shooting, and less than an hour after authorities named a suspect, when a Twitter account with the handle @bryce–williams7 began posting allegations against “Alison” and “Adam.” Just minutes before the account began to tweet about the shooting, a CNN reporter tweeted that “police are now searching for @bryce–williams7 aka Vester Flanagan, fmr. reporter for WDBJ.”
The @bryce–williams7 account then posted several times, accusing the shooting victims of wronging the tweeter.
“Alison made racist comments,” one tweet read.
“Adam went to hr on me after working with me one time!!!” another read.
Then came this message: “I filmed the shooting see Facebook.”
Within minutes, a video had been posted to a Facebook account for one Bryce Williams, appearing to show a horrifying video of the shooting from the gunman’s perspective.
The video was also posted to Twitter, in two separate clips.
Even now, after the boundaries between social media and the real world have become permeable, the direct release of a point-of-view video showing a fatal shooting seemed unbelievable.
Suddenly, it seemed, the suspect was asking for help going viral. Many reacted viscerally and with shock:
“Please do not tweet the shooter’s name or link to his social media profiles. Yes, he taped the murders. No, no one should watch it.”
“If you don’t have a professional reason to watch a snuff video, I encourage you to neither view it nor share it.”
“Don’t watch the video. Do not share the video. This is THE WORST possible use of Twitter/Facebook. Stepping away for a few hours. Hugs!”
Both of the accounts that appeared to be connected to Williams were suspended or removed shortly after the shooting videos were posted, amid widespread calls for the social networks to remove the clips.
As copied versions of the shooting video began to migrate to YouTube, a spokeswoman told The Washington Post: “YouTube has clear policies against videos containing gratuitous violence and we remove them as soon as they’re flagged.”
Representatives from Facebook and Twitter did immediately respond to requests for comment.
The @bryce–williams7 Twitter account does not appear to be new. People included the handle in tweets about WDBJ reports as far back as 2012. But as of late Wednesday morning, the earliest tweets sent by the @bryce–williams7 account dated to Aug. 19 – seven days before the shooting. It’s unclear whether there were earlier tweets that had been deleted.
During the past week, the feed prominently featured photo collages showing headshots, baby photos and more recent images. It also showed a man – apparently Williams – anchoring a television broadcast with a female anchor.
Although shocking, it’s not unprecedented for alleged murderers to use social media to display evidence of their own actions.
In February, police in Pennsylvania said a teenager had killed a classmate and uploaded a “selfie” with the victim to Snapchat. Redditors unearthed the personal details of somebody who in 2013 posted what appeared to be a murder confession in the form of a popular meme. That same year, Derek Medina posted what appeared to be a photo of his wife’s body, along with a confession, on Facebook.
But the Virginia shooting is arguably the highest-profile example of what some have termed a “social media murder,” one that unfolded in real time for a massive audience, with apparent participation by the suspect himself.
▪ Victim Alison Parker worked as the Jacksonville bureau chief for WCTI-TV in New Bern from 2012-2014.
▪ Victim Adam Ward had planned to move to Charlotte with his fiancee Melissa Ott, a producer who had taken a job with WSOC-TV in Charlotte.
▪ The alleged shooter, Vester Lee Flanagan II, worked from 2002-2004 as a reporter for WNCT-TV in Greenville, under the name Bryce Williams.