When I heard about the shooting of a live news crew last week, I was, like most people, sickened. Then I heard that there was a video file circulating on social media.
I watched it. I wish I hadn’t. It was sickening. It was kind of irresponsible for me to even look.
I thought about writing this column about the “social media murder” last week, but I didn’t want to bring attention to the acts as it was clear the murderer wanted our attention.
I’ve never believed it was my place to judge the way people behave on social media, and I don’t plan to start now. It would, however, be irresponsible in my role as a social media scholar to sit back and not address some of the questions about the way we engage one another.
Traditional mass-media distribution chains are mostly one way. The media act as gatekeepers, deciding what to print, post, air or stream.
Kurt Lewin, a German social psychologist, pioneered the study of gatekeeping. It’s a pretty simple concept that centers on looking at the way individuals and media decide what information they should share with others.
Gatekeepers are those who make the decisions and, because of this, they have influence. The process is supposed to filter information so that the unwanted, unnecessary and/or harmful messages are removed.
In a newsroom, like the one here at The Vindicator, there are editors who serve this role. They base decisions on codes of ethics and policies, and because the whole point is to share the message, they’re easily held accountable for poor gatekeeping decisions.
Of course, journalists are gatekeepers, too.
In social media, we all have the ability to produce content and, because of this, the responsibility to act as gatekeepers. The items we like, tweet, pin and share are not merely a reflection of our tastes and identities, they’re messages for our audience (yes, even a good Grumpy Cat meme).
The line is blurred in social media. For the most part, we know the people who make up our audience. They are our friends, family, colleagues and neighbors. But, if you fail to see yourself as a gatekeeper, you’re failing to see your role in the bigger social media world.
The video of the WDBJ murders looks a bit like a video game. The killer specifically tried to mimic the first-person shooter perspective that is a large part of gaming culture.
But the victims were not avatars, and the story wasn’t based in a fictional world. The victims were real. Their families and friends are real.
It is up to us as social media users to reject content like this. We need to report it, delete it and unfriend or unfollow those who share it.
As consumers, we can be gatekeepers, too. In cases like this, our role as gatekeepers is to close the gate. In turn, we might open it to information that brings us a little closer together.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is professor of communication studies the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA where he also directs the graduate program in professional communication. He researches and writes about communication and relationships, parenting and sports. He writes a weekly column for The Vindicator and Tribune-Chronicle newspapers on social media and society.