Mass Shootings vs. Social Media

Updated: Oct 21, 2019

Listen to the full episode here.


- The timeline of modern day mass shootings and how it correlates with the social technology

available at the time.

- Can Social Media be held responsible for an increase in mass shootings?

- The role of media coverage during these events...

- The Copycat Effect

- What can we do?

This definitely isn’t the most uplifting topic to dive into, and the political unrest presently surrounding mass shootings doesn’t make the task any easier. But I feel that a thoughtful examination of mass shootings and their causes, specifically related to social media, can uncover some interesting correlations that everyone can benefit from understanding. And upon my research, I have to say I’m still conflicted by the overall effect that social media might have on mass shootings. But one thing I can conclude is that social media can’t be held fully responsible for causing mass shootings. Let’s see why.

Media Coverage of Mass shootings in the age of Social Media

Let’s start this off by going back to 1999, the year of the Columbine shooting. In 1999, social media didn’t exist. The only places you found media coverage of the shooting were radio broadcasts, newspapers or TV outlets. The significantly relevant fact in this scenario is that the media coverage on Columbine didn’t reach its peak until two days after the tragedy occurred.

By 2006, after the proliferation of Myspace, Facebook and Twitter, the adolescent stages of social media were underway. And then in 2007, thirty-two people were shot and killed on Virginia Tech’s campus. Witnesses of the shooting were able to use Facebook from the shooting location to let their loved ones know they were safe. In the five days following the Virginia Tech shooting, records show that more than half of all news coverage was devoted to updates on the incident.

By the time of the Parkland shooting in 2018, Instagram and Snapchat had joined the group of social media platforms as industry leaders. Videos and posts were posted by students from within the school and the rest of the world promptly caught on. News coverage of the shooting took a different stance than previous mass shootings, focusing on the students’ resiliency and their position on gun reform campaigns rather than the identity of the shooter.

The progression of these three shootings shows us that as time has gone on, news about shootings has become more immediately available. Whereas the coverage of Columbine reached its peak two days after the massacre, coverage of the Parkland shooting started while the shooter was still active. There are positives and negatives to this progression: the immediacy of response time and the copycat effect.

The Copycat Effect

The Copycat Effect is a concept that has become pretty familiar as media coverage of mass shootings and serial killings have risen. The general argument of this concept goes like this: the more infamous a killer becomes in mass media coverage, the more other killers notice an opportunity to obtain similar infamy. In fact, this study confirms that “social media publicity about school shootings correlates with an increase in the probability of new attacks.''

That same study also mentions that the issue-attention cycle of news media outlets also contributes to the copycat effect. News channels provide coverage in a way that is designed to get more viewers. So, the more horrific and catastrophic an event is, the more attention it receives. What’s more, video clips from this coverage are reshared through social media by the news outlets themselves as well as the users who follow those accounts. Although social media allows for the coverage of the shooter to be shared and proliferated, social media users are responsible for exacerbating the circulation of information.

Effect of Social Media During Mass Shootings

In both the VT and Parkland shootings, social media played a very helpful role. At VT, Facebook empowered students and faculty to make risk-free contact with the outside world. Students at Parkland, more instinctively, used social media during the shooting, pulling out their phones to get video as soon as there was an active shooter.

In both cases, social media provided a safe line of communication during mass shootings that made it possible for authorities and the public to become immediately aware of the situation. Another positive is that it helped create a real-time evidence log in some cases with students getting taking video and posting on their timelines during the shootings. Social media also hosted support groups for victims and their families after the shooting. There’s definitely a side to the story where social media can be viewed as more helpful the harmful.

What can we do?

As a society, we have an important role to play here. We must be proactive in regulating how much information about the shooter is shared or reported on. Many of the mass shooters create manifestos that are posted to social media. We shouldn’t be sharing these manifestos on our social accounts. The more we share about these shooters increases the chances of other potential shooters with similar beliefs to find further inspiration for their massacres.

I will say, we have done better as a society in our response to recent shootings. We are seeing less and less of the shooter’s identity being revealed and talked about on news channels and social media. It definitely helps to not give any power or notoriety to the shooter or their motivations. This can even go as far as talking about the events and surrounding politics on social media. Chaos is what these shooters wish to cause through their actions and we should not abide in giving them that satisfaction.

So to round it all up, I do not find social media as the cause for increased mass shootings in our society. Although coverage from news media outlets or online news outlets becomes more exacerbated by users sharing content on social media platforms, social media can serve as a real-time evidence log and plays a vital role in victims getting help. There’s a laundry list of factors responsible for mass shootings occurring so we cannot take the easy way out by blaming one specific source as the cause of it all.


McKendry Bade