How Social Media Got the Arizona Shooting Wrong

I was saddened and disappointed by events that unfolded Saturday. I was saddened by an act of violence in Tuscon, Ariz. that took the lives of six people, including federal judge John Roll, and injured 12 more, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. But I was disappointed by the reaction from the public, specifically reactions from various social media platforms.

It was the perfect storm of political tension, knee-jerk reactions and a 24-hour news cycle. After the initial reports, the story was misconstrued, misrepresented and initially caused a controversy when, really, there was none.

On Twitter, I saw statements proclaiming that Sarah Palin had blood on her hands. They were in reference to a chart she posted on Facebook for her political action committee, SarahPAC, last March. The chart used gun sights to “target” Democrats that needed to be ousted from office. Giffords was one of those Democrats.

Her choice of imagery for the chart was undoubtedly in poor taste, especially in a country with such significant gun violence each year. Certainly, the chart was also indicative of the heated bi-partisan political atmosphere in country. So, yes, it was irresponsible for an influential political figure (whether she actually deserves to be influential or not) to widely disseminate material with violent undertones to her followers. The only problem is that the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, wasn’t one of her followers.

Sarah Palin's target chart.

People all over social media platforms were trying to make a tenuous connection between Palin’s chart and the shooting before all the facts were known. In fact, several news outlets reported that Giffords was dead, which turned out to be false. Yes, there was a possibility of such a connection, but it had yet to be proven.

But people wanted that connection, especially those who differ from Palin politically. Admittedly, that would be a hell of a story. But that wasn’t the story. As has been the case in similar incidents, a troubled young man didn’t receive the help or support that he probably needed and lashed out in a cruel and senseless manner. And it caused a tragedy.

That is the story.

Everyone was so quick to blame someone or report a salacious story that people were blinded to what was really important: six people lost their lives. They made the shooting about Palin or gun control or the Tea Party or any number of other political issues. Clearly, the immediacy that social media provides played a part. However, once the facts were in, I started seeing tweets and posts that said things such as, “Well, no matter Loughner’s politics, Palin’s militant rhetoric encourages this type of behavior.”

That is not the story.

The increasingly hostile political climate in the country, which played a part in Palin’s rhetoric and accompanying chart, is a story, but a separate one. It didn’t belong in the same breath as the shooting, and it still doesn’t. People used this disaster to further their own political end, which is to say proving Palin or the Tea Party is bad for the country. That’s incredibly selfish, and it’s disrespectful to the people killed and injured Saturday.

Even if Loughner were some sort of rabid follower of Palin, I’m not convinced she would be to blame anyway. Discussions of the shooting during the weekend used the same deceitful tactic opponents of video games and violent films have been using for years, wait for something terrible to happen then blame it on something or someone you just happen to be lobbying against. But it’s not just that it’s deceitful, in most cases it’s also unfounded.

For one thing, it assumes that people’s minds are blank vessels that will act on anything put before them, which ignores the power of free will and choice. You always have a choice to do or not to do something. Encouragement can only be blamed so much because it is not the same as coercion or force. In the end, most decisions, and any following actions, rest with the individual. Secondly, it shifts blame to a distant figure or idea, which makes it easier for people satisfy latent guilt or a sense of moral outrage without actually showing any real sympathy.  Finally, disturbed people, as Loughner appears to be judging by his Youtube channel and accounts from classmates, don’t think rationally and therefore don’t need a particularly strong or sensible motive to commit such an act.

So once I file this piece, I will not talk about the political subtext related to Saturday’s tragedy any further. Instead, I will keep the victims and their families in my thoughts and prayers. I suggest you do the same. Save your righteous, political indignation and trade it in for sympathy.

That is the right thing to do.

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2 thoughts on “How Social Media Got the Arizona Shooting Wrong

  1. punditman says:

    I was not aware that “all the facts were in.” In any case, are we to ignore the social and political context in which crimes of terror occur? When political figures are targeted for assassination, sorry, but that becomes part of the “story” of the tragedy. Before you lift your pen again, please seriously consider whether the rhetoric of the right amounts to something more dangerous than “poor taste.”

    As Paul Krugman puts it… “there’s a huge contrast in the media. Listen to Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann, and you’ll hear a lot of caustic remarks and mockery aimed at Republicans. But you won’t hear jokes about shooting government officials or beheading a journalist at The Washington Post. Listen to Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly, and you will.” And what do the deranged do with that?

    • burkpkrohe says:

      No, we shouldn’t ignore the context, but I’m saying creating a false context is of no use. People act is if violence and violent rhetoric is a new epidemic in the America’s political landscape. Really, it has been present since the start of the country. There have been 20 attempted assassinations of sitting or former U.S. presidents and vice presidents in the country’s history. Four have been successful. A sitting U.S. president, Aaron Burr, killed a man, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel. Charles Sumner was caned by Preston Brooks in the U.S. Senate chamber. Plus, the country’s history of violence and firearms goes all the way back to its inception as a frontier society, relying mostly on militias and valuing defense of personal property from any perceived threat (English, French, Spanish or Native Americans).

      Also, a current of general anti-government sentiment ran through most of the assassination attempts, regardless of political parties. So it seems two solutions would be to change the two-party system or, if the assassins had their way, get rid of government all together. Good luck with that.

      You mention various talking heads and media outlets and then state “And what do the deranged do with that?” That’s making the assumption that Loughner or similarly disturbed violent people are actually paying attention to pundits and the 24-hour news cycle. Yes, he was a registered voter and had met Giffords previously, but that doesn’t mean he was hanging on Olbermann or O’Reilly’s every word or paying attention to them even in passing.

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