Can violence on Social Media Be Censored?

In the span of an hour, I have seen my sweet three-year-old godson who lives in South Carolina singing a song he learned in his class and photos of the triplets a college acquaintance in Atlanta, Georgia had months ago. I know that one of my friends across town is on a new exercise plan despite having not seen her in over a week. I know that some of my sorority sisters went to a ball game in Texas, and had a good time. I also know that one of my friends in Michigan recently spent an afternoon raking leaves with her family.  

I do not have the ability or financial resources to supernaturally transport myself from Washington, DC, to all of these places, nor am I  capable of being in all of these places simultaneously. However, my social media profiles definitely are. Technology and the emergence of social media has allowed me to keep up  the goings-on of my family and friends for years, and I love it. Social media has also become a news outlet; for an increasing number of Americans, Facebook and Twitter are becoming primary sources of news. But, just as these sharing outlets have emerged as a game changer for the common technological good, some of the things being shared have taken a dark turn — especially where (gun) violence is concerned.

Social media is a wide open space of little restriction. Does what we see help us to become more conscientious, or does it subconsciously inspire people to do evil acts? Most of us watched as the two news anchors in Virginia were gunned down in real time during an interview. That video was posted to social media by the shooter, and watched over and over again by many. How do we keep up with what we are seeing? Censorship would violate the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and press guaranteed by the constitution. However, is it possible that the freedom in the expressions we enjoy can lead us into a cyclical pattern of watching and perpetuating violence? The video taken by the shooter during the newscast were removed  the social media sites, but lots of people had already seen them.

I often wonder where people get the inspiration to commit some of the crimes and heinous acts that make headlines. Perhaps some level our society inadvertently encourages it. But, with all of school shootings, and gun violence that seems increasingly commonplace, it is hard to come up with a for the adage that violence begets violence. And when bad things happen, should we punish people for posting or re-posting violent videos on Facebook and Twitter? It is clear that the protection and obligations of the law are painfully behind our technologically dependent times. I don’t know if there’s any real way to protect people without infringing on their civil liberties. We can essentially post what we want, but the media companies that give us the platform to put information out there should share some of the accountability.

Legally speaking, if my dog bites someone, I can be held liable. If my child hurts someone, I can be held liable. If I serve alcohol to someone who then goes and commits a crime, I could be liable. If someone commits a crime that gets posted to social media site, and other people see it and a link can be established to the reproduction of the crime–social media companies should shoulder some of the responsibility. Maybe there needs to be some sort of screening mechanism to filter violent content from appearing on social media platforms.

For instance, On Facebook, if you see something, there is a report link that you can use to report something that encomapsses nudity or hate speech, but there is nothing on the website that speaks to how long it could take to get said video or post down. Likewise there is no policy on posting things that are violent or should not be seen by those who are more impressionable. By the time the content comes down, it has had time to affect users. On YouTube, you can’t delete a video from another person’s channel. Again, you must again report it and Google will decide whether or not to remove it at their discretion. And yet again, there will be some lapse of time between the video going live and it being removed, during which anyone can see it.

At some point individual rights must take a backseat to the societal good when thinking about school shootings like Columbine, and countless  others: Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, and the community center shooting in Binghamton, New York. This year we saw Carver High School, Umpqua Community College; nine worshippers in Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina executed by a crazed gunman — and now everyone knows the name Dylan Roof. Even going to the movies with your family be hazardous to your health, and it all gets posted and reposted.

Violence — videos of actual violence and the commentary from the news outlets as well — pervades our timelines to the point of almost making it popular. We can’t stop watching the 6 o’clock news, but we can think carefully about what is allowed on social media. Social media postings and videos of shootings and violence thrust the smallest, sleepiest little towns onto the national stage as we hear of the last words and deeds of those who were gunned down. We all want to have the information. On a certain level, we may be getting to the point that it incentivizes the violence. In some cases there could be an obsession of sharing these horrible stories and it is motivating  troubled young people towards become infamous and gaining a sick level of celebrity status on social media.

If we can’t change the level of exposure, maybe it is time to change society’s reaction by making sure that social media companies understand the role they play, and hold them accountable. It may be time to see some violence related policies. We do have the right to know what is going on for our safety just as much as we have the right to repost what we see fit on our social media accounts.

I pride myself on keeping up with current events; I want to know about things happening in the world that indirectly or directly affect my life and lives of those I love. However, the violent videos I see pop up on my timeline causes me to want to go back to a time when my Facebook page was being filled with notifications about engagements and graduations and not the latest person funeralized after a massacre by way of a firearm.  Everyone wants to know what is going on. Everyone wants to plug in. But, there must be a way to start thinking about more responsible posting when it comes to violence.  

Image Credits: Matty's Flick
Yvonne Miller, Esq.
Yvonne Miller, Esq., is a native of Spartanburg, South Carolina. She is an alumna of both the University of South Carolina and Western Michigan University Law School. Yvonne is a consultant residing in Washington, DC. She enjoys listening to music (especially when performed live); traveling; cooking; adorable puppies; and focusing on taking over the world.

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