On Jan. 8, 2011, Jared Lee Loughner allegedly shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and 19 others resulting in 6 fatalities. This event has drawn attention to a number of new and important roles social media has come to play in our society, including how information is gathered, changed political rhetoric, and how these sites handle the profiles of those involved in high-profile tragedies.
Profiling the Suspect
Media coverage (i.e., cable, network, radio, and newspapers) of the event represented a broader trend in contemporary journalism: almost immediately, news outlets began to piece together a profile of this previously unknown figure using almost exclusively Loughner’s social media profiles (i.e., Facebook, Myspace, Youtube and, most recently, online gaming discussion boards). Even though his MySpace and Facebook profiles were taken down by the site, screenshots of the sites are available, including one showing a photo of gun on a US History textbook as a profile picture.
The digital documentation of our lives via social media offers an easily-accessible, autobiographical source for journalists and anyone else who is interested. Yet, there is a risk in basing our impressions solely off of this information. Loughner’s image of himself is certainly not objective and may very well be inaccurate. News outlets, however, face pressure to “get the scoop” on the story, so they tended to report on Loughner based heavily on this information, as opposed to interviewing a range of people in his life to construct a more holistic perspective.
The Post-Shooting Political Debate
In the wake of the tragedy, a debate emerged over the intensity and tone of contemporary political rhetoric. The political right in general, and Sarah Palin in particular, were criticized for their use violent language which many on the left believe has the power to incite real violence. Palin’s use of cross-hairs over opponents districts became the central image of this debate as well as a tweet in which she encouraged supporters: “Don’t Retreat, Instead – RELOAD!” And it is noteworthy that Sarah Palin posted her video-response to this criticism on Facebook.
Arguably, the medium of online communications has contributed to the intensification political rhetorical over the past decade. The Internet has made communication easier and more efficient, allowing politicians to communicate with their constituents more and more publicly. This proliferation of communication has further enabled the mainstream media’s tendency to report on politicians themselves, what politicians are saying, and how they are saying it (as opposed to focusing on politician’s platforms). Thus, the media spends more time covering rhetoric and less time covering issues. Moreover, politicians are expected to adhere to the norm that social media communications are intimate communications between friends/supporters. As such, politicians are pressured to speak more colloquially, using the language of their voting base. In doing so, however, they leave behind a very public trail of communications that are likely to alienate those outside their base who lead very different lives and hold very different values. For instance, using gun-related terms is commonplace to many of Palin’s constituents, while this same language makes many others quite fearful.
Disappearing the Suspect
It was also important to observe how social media sites (and their users) handled the online profiles of the victims and the alleged perpetrator. Since the Virginia Tech massacre, it has become standard to make the profiles of victims de facto memorials. Meanwhile, the Facebook and Myspace profiles of the alleged perpetrator were disabled. We can speculate as to why both companies made this decision (as opposed to Google keeping his YouTube account accessible): the pages may have been significant to the investigation, the companies might have feared that Loughner’s “friends” visible on the pages might have been endangered by the coverage, or they might have sought to protect Loughner’s own right to a fair trial before being subjected to public ridicule (e.g., through comments on his page). Whatever the motivation, the consequences of disappearing Loughlner from the social media landscape are of great significance. For the generation that has come of age in the era of social media, losing one’s presence on such websites is tantamount to losing one’s (social) existence. Suspension of one’s accounts is punishment in the form of social isolation; like a sort-of digital solitary confinement.