Elon Musk faced a test after Texas shooting. He failed. | Opinion

Elon Musk faced a test after Texas shooting. He failed.

Images of bloodied and disfigured victims should never have been allowed to circulate on Twitter and likely made us less safe.

| Updated on: May 13 2023, 14:14 IST
Elon Musk
According to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are shot (REUTERS)

 Gruesome images of the aftermath of Saturday's mass shooting at a Texas mall were allowed to circulate widely on Twitter. 

The platform should never have allowed the pictures of bloodied and disfigured victims — one of whom appeared to be a child — to be shared, and it underscored the dangers of having Elon Musk, someone with little regard for the importance of monitoring and promptly removing graphic images, at the helm of one of the most popular social networks. 

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It's easy to understand why some people wanted to share these shocking images: to send a message to lawmakers that the country is fed up with their failure to effectively regulate guns, or to convince die-hard Republican voters that they need to rethink who they support in elections. This time, eight people were senselessly killed, including a 3-year-old and two elementary-school-age siblings, and at least seven others were injured.

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According to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are shot, there have already been over 200 mass shootings in the US this year.

While we should keep excoriating our leaders (and voters) for letting the country's bloodshed and trauma continue, sharing these kinds of pictures might only be making our country less safe.

Over 200 studies have shown that being exposed to violent imagery is correlated with committing acts of violence, and an investigation last year by the New York Times found that the kinds of violent, hateful posts that used to exist on more obscure parts of the internet are now endemic on mainstream social networks. 

This can help explain why, as people have come to use social media more, the US has become more violent. For example, according to FBI data compiled by Pew, in 2008 (when Twitter had only been around for two years), there were nine active-shooter incidents in the United States. In 2021, there were 61.

With over 300 million active users on Twitter, sharing graphic photos of the Texas massacre risks encouraging copycat attacks. It could also traumatize the people who view it, particularly the victims' loved ones. 

Whether that simply doesn't register with the average user or whether sociopaths are actively sharing this content to try to encourage more violence, social networks have a responsibility to remove such images.

YouTube has said it is deplatforming videos of the Texas shooting, while Twitter and Meta, the parent company of Facebook, didn't respond to the New York Times's requests for comment. The Times reported that searches for the Texas shooting on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube linked mostly to news reports, as opposed to the kinds of graphic videos posted on Twitter. 

Even when platforms do have policies against this kind of horrific content, they often aren't enforced. This is partly because the technology they rely on for enforcement doesn't seem to work very well. For example, internal documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal in 2021 showed that Facebook staffers estimated that the automated systems they use to remove posts that violate the company's policies against incitement and violence failed to remove 99.4% of such content. 

Clearly, social networks need human moderators. 

Since Musk purchased Twitter, he has laid off many of the staffers who were responsible for content moderation. And exposés by the New York Times and Time magazine reveal that Meta's content moderators are often contract workers who earn low pay, lack job security, and suffer lasting trauma as a result of their work. 

The violence spilling over from social media to the offline world should be a wake-up call to social networks that they need to invest more in the teams that are responsible for keeping their platforms safe. Hiring more workers to detect this content and ensuring they get the mental-health support they need to be able to do their jobs should be a top priority. 

Users' efforts to share footage of the Texas shooting online should also be a wake-up call for legislators that there may be more mass shootings if they don't act now to implement stronger gun-control measures. It should also serve as a signal to politicians that many of the people who have resorted to sharing these gruesome images are sick of living under the threat of gun violence. 

According to a poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in March, 54% of American adults say they or a family member have had a gun-related experience, such as witnessing a shooting, being threatened with a gun, or losing a family member to gun violence. 

As these experiences become the norm rather than the exception for people in the US, we're screaming for action. The No. 1 topic of conversation I have with friends and fellow parents these days is what we are telling our children to do in the event of a school shooting. As a voter, I have never been more outraged about anything than I am about having to explain to my daughter how to hide from a gunman while he shoots up her preschool. I've also never seen my friends and neighbors, people of all political stripes, so enraged about an issue.

We're at wit's end, but we need a smarter strategy. 

Instead of sharing photos that could spark more violence, we should instead use social media to call on owners of social networks to stop hosting the hate that is spilling over into offline violence. And we need to use our social accounts to call out political leaders who don't support gun reform and demand that they take action. (House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, I'm looking at you.)

Sharing photos of the latest victims of gun violence isn't going to make our country safer. But we can and should use our social media accounts to help social networks and lawmakers see the bigger picture: Americans are fed up with gun violence and are demanding change.

Kara Alaimo is an associate professor of communication at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her book “Over the Influence: Why Social Media Is Toxic for Women and Girls — and How We Can Take It Back” will be published in 2024.



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First Published Date: 13 May, 14:12 IST