Sunday, January 16, 2011

Reactions to Arizona Shooting

The shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the 19 other people injured or killed on Jan 8, 2011, is being reported with many references to the role of social media, in terms of what motivated the tragedy and people's reactions to it.

Find one of these references (include a link)
The Giffords Tragedy and Social Media
By Violet Blue | January 10, 2011, 3:07am PST

Analyze, Evaluate, Apply relevant concepts from readings

In this article, social media is depicted in a positive and negative light in regards to the recent tragedy of the Arizona grocery story shooting. Many worried, saddened people can express their emotions on various news, shared and personal blogs or other SNS. They have a forum to share their disbelief collectively and acquaintances of the victims can console each other and express their support. As in the article by Nardi, et al SNS provide venues where people can “seek other’s feedback” and “release emotional tension” (227).

However, the ominous side of social media rears its ugly head, too. Loughner, too, used SNS to “express opinions to influence others” and “release emotional tension” about his frustrations regarding government and other societal ills before the shooting (terms taken from Nardi 2004). His digital trail of unpleasant threats has created a lot of interest so much that certain people are making sure that the information remains accessible. Although Loughner’s MySpace was removed, quick thinking opportunists captured the postings in other digital formats to share later.

The continual availability of the shooter’s online contributions via screenshots demonstrates the lack of control content providers maintain over their profiles. This going-through-the-backdoor practice when the front door is closed reminded me of the Dibbell article when Mr. Bungle was removed from the virtual world LambdaMOO only later to resurface with a fresh email and user name, Dr. Jest (1998). This kind of behavior surprised me because tampering with evidence (digital content that can indicate the criminal’s state of mind and therefore be used in court against him) seems like a crime in itself. Whoever took these snapshots of the shooter’s profile to share later is pretty darn brazen, if you ask me. This kind of I-do-what-I-like attitude is prevalent in SNS because of the anonymity factor.

In the article by Dibbell, the author learned later that the user Mr. Bungle was made up of a several NYU students. Dibbell also hypothesized that only one of the original co-creators of Mr. Bungle returned as Dr. Jest. The point is that nobody really knows. When people interact on SNS there is a lack of personal accountability. Tenopir mentions this pitfall of social media, as “special interest groups, whether hate groups, political action committees, or corporations with a product to sell, can convey their message without revealing their true identity” (2007).  

Other examples of egregious behavior created under the veil of anonymity are the references to Google student groups ranting and raving about university professors and the video posting by a student of a lecturer scratching his groin area (Beer, et al 2007). It appears that there is a sense of immunity when posting online. This tendency to circumvent and disregard face-to-face social norms is dangerous for two reasons. One is that there is a chance outrageous remarks can be traced back to the creator (Nardi 2004) and the other is that people can get hurt, as in reputations can be damaged and in the case of the Dibbell article, real emotions and psychological trauma can result (1998 revised).

The article furthermore goes on to describe the great interest in the gunman’s online social activity pre-January 8th. Curious members of the media and the public flock to his accounts like rubberneckers passing a traffic accident in an effort to learn more about the motivations of Loughner. MySpace postings and Youtube videos can be interpreted and explained after the fact, but the author of this article remarks that there is a “grey area” when interest morphs into fixation, i.e. someone created a Twitter account and a blog using the shooter’s Twitter account name. False identities abound in SNS despite a history of efforts to banish “fakesters” (boyd & Ellison 2007).

Do recent hits to his site show morbidity or a healthy concern on the part of viewers?
What is acceptable? Should all of his SNS be frozen or get removed? In a way, it is interesting to note who followed his profiles before the shooting. Did he have comments/followers/friends that can be questioned now? Researchers state a unique characteristic of SNS is that it “allow[s] individuals to meet strangers, but rather that they enable users to articulate and make visible their social networks” (boyd & Ellison 2007). I am sure that FBI will be interested in meeting those who subscribed to/interacted with Loughner’s profiles pre-Jan 8th. Even though these connections don’t reveal affiliation or conspiracy either. This article mentions that eerily  “[Congresswoman] Giffords YouTube channel subscribes to only two people on YouTube – one is Loughner” (Blue 2011). This could be a fluke…maybe a random courtesy acceptance?

But then again, it could be the case that Loughner didn’t even have any commentators or followers on his SNS. In a study of weblogs, Herring, et al discovered that many blogs don’t have traceable comments, even though there were readers following online postings (2004). Who knows? But one thing is for sure, Loughner has plenty readers now.

Conclude by providing a brief definition of social computing, and comment on its potential power as a motivating force for positive and negative social phenomena.

Social computing is any means that users can interact and communicate with others via digital means. It can be used to share personal details, ruminations, ideas, event information, photos, news, projects, etc with friends, family, acquaintances, and general public. Privacy settings are adjustable and many formats are free to use but include commercial advertisements. Anyone who has access to the internet can participate in social computing. Social computing is not limited to online journaling; it can also include product reviews and ratings, passively following other’s weblogs, tweets, and SNS profiles, too. In other words, social computing is made up of creators, consumers, producers (in which people can take on one or all of these roles at any given time) providing, altering and extracting information online. It has the potential to be used to benefit society by promoting good will, furthering knowledge, and advancing culture or it can be used maliciously to hurt people, promote conflict, and cause discord on a massive scale instantly, too. 


  1. I really appreciate how you went into great detail defining social computing. Sometimes we take for granted all the things that we do with social computing, all the connections we are making; your definition helps enumerate all the aspects of social computing.

    I am not sure what you mean by "tampering with evidence." The idea that taking screenshots of the Mr. Laughner's posts to public sites while they were still available to the public may not be a crime. After all, there has been no commencement of a trial, and so far as I know, there was not even an indictment when the screenshots were taken.

    Also, I am not sure anyone has successfully used a social networking site posting to prove the requisite mens rea for a capital offense. For a prosecutor to rely in a SNS posting to prove beyond a reasonable doubt intent to kill seems irresponsible, any good defense attorney could poke holes in that legal theory in a few well crafted sentences.

  2. I totally agreed with you, and am worried about the idea of inappropriate information still spreading and remaining accessible in the virtual environment, and maybe influence the real world after it is deleted from one source. Although this fast & vast spreading feature is what it makes SNSs valuable, it is indeed a drawback when the dark sides were not filtered.

    It also impressed me how detailed your definition is-especially compares to mine:). I like that you included the methods, forms, constituents,and influences of social computing in your definition, they did inspired me a lot.

  3. Outstanding post. Seeking contact with others to explain or commiserate after tragic events certainly predates social media, but you mentioned the important fuzzy line between interest and fixation/preoccupation. Attempting to answer the basic question: do I have the real story? fuels both compulsive Web searches and makes alternative if far-fetched explanations attractive (e.g. conspiracy theories). We're still groping for what social media norms are, but efforts to delete content usually succeed only in guaranteeing it will be mirrored and posted elsewhere to preserve its tacit value--after all, if someone wanted to delete it, it must be important.

  4. I am uncertain of what I believe is the proper procedure to go about handling Laughner's accounts after the shooting. On one hand, it is reasonable to censor sensitive information in order to prevent wild speculation by the public and to control potential negative repercussions, either from things written by Laughner or from people writing things after the fact. On the other hand, it is important to allow people to see the whole picture and make their own personal judgments after viewing the most complete picture that they can. My personal stance is in support of the latter, as I believe people have the right to know everything, good or bad, and judge the situation for themselves. However, I do understand and agree with you that people often abuse the freedom they are given and hide behind walls of anonymity doing so. As Dibbell showed, some people treat online communities as social experiments, where they are free to incite reactions free of personal consequence.

  5. Great post, I really like how you connected your thoughts to the readings (something I'm still having trouble with). It's important to keep in mind that even in an online community, there can be consequences to one's action... not only can they hurt others, but they can hurt the one who's expressing them as well if they leak into his real life (such as his identity being revealed).

    The idea that the FBI may be interested in examining Loughner's list of online friends is also an interesting if slightly worrying one... it makes sense in trying to gain an understanding of it's intention, yet the idea that one may be somehow implicated in a crime simply by "following" or "friending" someone is pretty scary. Even though some of the readings pointed out that it's rare for complete strangers to interact in social media, I believe it actually happens quite a lot, especially on Facebook where complete strangers often "friend" each other for the purpose of popular games such as Farmville. It would be really interesting to see some more research on how the explosion of social networking through youtube, Facebook and Twitter has changed the idea that social media is mostly a tool to keep up with people you already know.

  6. @mernie - Point taken about the evidence comment. I was and still am surprised to see that some folks have no fear tampering with someone else's postings, especially someone who just allegedly committed a violent crime. But I guess, everything is vulnerable to a mash-up. Nothing seems to be off-limits.

  7. @Nan, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I think that permanency of digital archives is a hard concept to grasp, especially for the NET generation. I am so grateful that I am not growing up with the internet! I have heard FB described as digital high school yearbook. I would be horrified to have some of my entries scribbled in a fellow classmate's yearbook...heck, even my silly senior quote... immortalized online. As librarians/educators, we must do our part to advise folks about this lasting change in communication.

  8. Palabra Lau, great post! I am re-typing what I wrote since it just got deleted - arrggh a reminder to me to save, save, save!

    Anyways this was one of the few blogs I read this week that got at the idea of how what you post online is permanent and that with cashe and --as you mentioned-- screenshots, webpages can be archived. Not only will this information help in the investigation against Loughner but it can be studied and analyzed in hopes of determining his motivations so to try to avoid reoccurences in the future.
    Also wanted to let you know that I love your blog background that chair looks really comfy! :)