The Powerful Impact of Digital Media on Mass Shootings
Mark Follman on Misinformation, Sensational Headlines, and Threat Assessment
The digital media age has exerted profound influence on how we see the mass shootings phenomenon. Through Twitter and other social media platforms, the public begins to learn of these attacks as they unfold in real time. Misinformation and political outrage also spread swiftly. A popular satirical news story from The Onion often recirculates in the aftermath, mocking widespread resignation with its well-known headline: “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
Digital media have also become directly consequential to the mass shootings problem, at once fueling emulation and threats and becoming indispensable to threat assessment work. The effects on perpetrator behavior have a unique dimension. They show that journalists and public officials can be instrumental to changing a misguided cultural narrative about mass shooters and stopping the harmful elevation of them.
No prior scenario illustrated this opportunity more sharply than the aftermath of the attack at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, on July 20, 2012, where twelve people were murdered and seventy others were injured during a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. The twenty-four-year-old perpetrator had thought about how he might get public attention, searching online beforehand for tips on posting photos from his mobile phone—yet he had no idea what wild heights of notoriety awaited him.
Just hours after the country woke to the news on that Friday morning, the smiling face of James Holmes, a socially dysfunctional PhD dropout, filled computer and TV screens nationwide, with news networks breaking into daytime programming to broadcast special reports on the “Batman Massacre.” Soon the public learned that Holmes had fashioned himself into the comic superhero’s evil arch nemesis.
“He had his hair painted red,” announced New York City police commissioner Raymond Kelly at a press conference, relaying details of a law enforcement briefing. “He said he was the Joker.”
ABC News’ Nightline aired Kelly’s remarks followed by a law enforcement commentator weighing in on Holmes: “He’s a guy that has so left reality that he’s part of the Batman world,” said Brad Garrett, a former FBI special agent. “And he’s gonna go in and play this character, and through that character, he’s gonna kill people.” As other major media reported the Joker details, citing unnamed federal officials, ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer opened a separate broadcast with a related scoop: “Police in Colorado are studying the Batman movies and comic books to learn more about the mind of the killer in Aurora.”
According to global headlines, life was imitating art to sinister perfection. There was just one problem: The story wasn’t true. “We found nothing showing it had to do with Batman,” said George Brauchler, the Colorado district attorney who prosecuted Holmes in 2015 on 164 counts of murder and attempted murder.
The Joker story had fulfilled public hunger for a narrative explaining the horrific event, enduring despite even basic flaws like the fact that the comic villain’s hair was well known by fans to be green. Case evidence showed that Holmes’s decision to dye his hair bright red stemmed from feelings of desperation about a young woman he liked who had rejected him five months before the mass shooting. He thought it made him look more attractive and “brave.” In Holmes’s apartment, which he had rigged with explosives intended to divert police from the movie theater attack, investigators had found a Batman mask—but they concluded the item was an afterthought, acquired once Holmes had surveilled and selected the cineplex based on tactical calculations and body count potential.
Investigators concluded that the highly anticipated premiere could just as easily have been for another blockbuster, say, The Avengers or Skyfall. The prosecution team didn’t concern themselves with correcting the record about the Joker falsehood during the 2015 trial, according to Brauchler, because it wasn’t germane to convicting Holmes on the extensive evidence of his planning for the attack.
Holmes himself was surprised by the tale about his motive. His thoughts after learning about it in prison from fellow inmates were revealing of his interest in notoriety. “They kind of turned me into a super villain,” he told Dr. William Reid, a psychiatrist who evaluated him for trial. “At least I’m remembered for doing something.”
Early misinformation had become a general problem with mass shootings in the digital era, including false claims about more than one attacker that often arose from the initial chaos and circulated on social media and in news reporting. Some victims in the Aurora theater had at first been in a state of disbelief, a common reaction that was particularly understandable in a darkened cinema where Holmes deployed tear gas and was dressed from head to toe in body armor and other tactical gear. One moviegoer reported thinking the shooting was a promotional stunt. The unreliable account of Holmes claiming to be the Joker appeared to have originated with an eyewitness who spoke to police on the scene. (Raymond Kelly did not respond to media inquiries about the account he gave after it was first debunked three years later by a Denver Post columnist.)
Kelly’s press conference the day of the attack clearly had been intended to reassure the public in a densely populated top movie market: “As a precaution against copycats and to raise the comfort levels among movie patrons, the New York City Police Department is providing coverage at theaters where the The Dark Knight Rises is playing in the five boroughs,” he stated. Law enforcement leaders in other cities announced similar steps, while AMC Theaters said it would no longer allow people wearing costumes or masks into screenings.
The ubiquitous Joker story, though, draped the message of vigilance and safety in a dark irony—by potentially fueling inspiration for a follow-up attack. Growing case research showed that such sensational news content—behold the super-villain!—epitomized the kind of attention numerous mass shooters craved and knew they could provoke through shocking acts.
Nightline’s in-depth report featured Holmes’s face a half dozen times and narrated the Joker details with a slow zoom in on a still image of the murderous character’s diabolically smeared visage as famously depicted by actor Heath Ledger in the Batman movie franchise. The broadcast concluded with a point of caution sourced to law enforcement officials, described without irony by chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross: “Across the country there are concerns that there could be something else from the copycats,” he said, “someone trying to capitalize on the same publicity that Mr. Holmes has received.”
As the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit and others in the field were deepening their research on pre-attack behaviors around this time, they were finding emulation among far more plotters and shooters than even experts had previously understood. Further scrutiny of major cases from years past affirmed the metastasizing trend: The mass shooter at Northern Illinois University in 2008, for example, had taken note of the chaining of the doors by the Virginia Tech shooter as he’d planned to trap his own victims in the NIU auditorium. A mass shooter the following year in upstate New York had also looked at the Virginia Tech shooter’s tactics; he blocked off a rear exit to the building where he struck, mailed a grievance-laden manifesto to a TV news station, and used weapons and tactical attire similar to those of the Virginia Tech shooter.
By 2015, sensational news coverage, unfiltered social media content, and shooters’ quests for notoriety were streams merging into a raging current. As forensic psychologist Reid Meloy and several colleagues observed that year in research on identification behavior, “Cultural scripts are now spread globally within seconds.” Their analysis further detailed how some perpetrators saw themselves as “warriors” fulfilling a mission or fighting for a cause for which they wanted to surpass the impact of previous attackers.
In August 2015, the problem reached a logical next stage when a disgruntled ex–TV reporter stalked two former colleagues as they conducted a live broadcast on location in Roanoke, Virginia. The perpetrator had fumed about being fired from WDBJ-TV back in 2013 after a series of angry clashes with colleagues, and he had vowed a response that would “be in the headlines.” Using a semiautomatic handgun and filming his attack with a body camera, he fatally shot reporter Allison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward and wounded their interview subject, Vicki Gardner, as the station’s anchor and others in the studio reacted with confusion to the live feed. After fleeing the scene, the perpetrator posted the body-cam footage on Facebook and Twitter, then killed himself a few hours later as police caught up to him in a car chase.
The ghastly snuff video had gone viral in less than thirty minutes after its posting and was soon dubbed in news commentary as the first-ever “social media murder.” Tech companies blocked the footage as the day went on, but it continued to circulate online, and cable news networks looped snippets of it in their ongoing coverage. HollywoodLife.com, a celebrity-news site, produced a three-minute video report that replayed the initial few seconds of the killing no less than seven times and was viewed by at least a hundred thousand people. Video stills from the attacker’s perspective made the covers of tabloid newspapers, inviting the public to gaze along the barrel and muzzle flash of the Glock 19 used to kill Parker, her face frozen in a final moment of terror: “Executed on Live TV,” blared the New York Daily News headline.
Five weeks later, a deeply disaffected twenty-six-year-old man carried out a suicidal gun massacre at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, after posting comments online about the Roanoke killer: “I have noticed that so many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day.”
Attempts by mass shooters to gain attention in freshly shocking ways were on the rise as digital media offered vast new opportunity for them to feed their pathological narcissism. In the next several years, at least two assailants went online in real time while they were carrying out attacks. In Florida in 2016, a gunman searched on his smartphone for news of a “shooting” and “Pulse Orlando” while he was inside the nightclub of that name committing a massacre.
In California in 2018, an attacker at a bar in Thousand Oaks posted messages on social media accounts both immediately before and during his suicidal rampage. A user on the fringe site 4Chan had recently posted a message evoking the grim trend: “Has anyone ever livestreamed a mass shooting with a GoPro helmet?” An answer came in March 2019, when a far-right extremist carried out a terrorist attack at two mosques in New Zealand and wore a camera streaming footage of the massacre on Facebook Live.
The Columbine mass shooting, meanwhile, remained the biggest source of emulation behavior and exerted influence that now spanned generations. In a cluster of three separate attacks in early 2018, two of the offenders were mere infants when Columbine took place, and a third hadn’t even been born yet. “I’m thinking about doing my school the same way,” a nineteen-year-old commented about a Columbine video on YouTube prior to opening fire at his former high school in Ocala, Florida, nineteen years later to the day. “Everybody will know my name,” he added. The perpetrator who attacked Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that February had researched Columbine and recorded himself on video, saying, “When you see me on the news, you’ll all know who I am.” A high school junior who went on a deadly rampage that May at Santa Fe High School just south of Houston wore a trench coat and insignia mimicking the Columbine shooters’ attire.
Perhaps most unsettling was that there were many others like them, mostly young men (and a few young women) who plotted or carried out attacks marked by the “Columbine effect,” as I called the phenomenon in my investigative reporting based on case data I’d begun collecting in 2013.
After two decades had passed since the Colorado tragedy, the data grew to contain more than a hundred Columbine-inspired plots and attacks in thirty-four states, which revealed several disturbing patterns: Like the shooter in Ocala, eighteen other case subjects planned to strike on the date of the Columbine mass shooting. (Most were thwarted, and two ended up attacking on different dates.) Many case subjects identified with the pair of perpetrators from 1999 specifically as “heroes,” “martyrs,” or “gods.” And several made pilgrimages to Colorado, from as far away as North Carolina and Washington state, to visit Columbine High School before returning home to carry out shootings.
Those were just the cases discoverable in the public record. “There are many more who have come to our community and have been thwarted,” John McDonald, the director of security for Colorado’s Jefferson County school district, told me when I met with him at Columbine High School to learn about Jeffco’s threat assessment operations. “They want to see where it happened, want to feel it, want to walk the halls. They try to take souvenirs.”
In 2016, after VICE published an article about an online subculture of “girls who love the Columbine shooters,” several different young women from out of state showed up within a month, eager to get inside the building. McDonald’s team had grown adept at intercepting even the most casually suspicious visitors approaching the campus.
For some it was just about prurient fascination, but for others, something worse. More than a decade after the tragedy, a high schooler from Utah who had requested an interview for his student newspaper had spent much of an in-person meeting with Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis asking for details about the 1999 carnage and security measures since put in place. The sixteen-year-old was arrested back home the following month, along with a co-conspirator, after another student alerted school authorities to ominous text messages she’d received alluding to the pair’s budding plot to bomb the high school.
Suspected copycats came from as far away as overseas, added McDonald, who began managing security in 2009 for the district’s 157 schools and roughly 86,000 students. “It’s a cult following unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” he remarked. “The problem is always on our radar.”
The problem’s reach is measurable in additional ways: By 2019, more than a dozen attacks had occurred abroad, in Canada and several other countries from Europe to Latin America, in which the assailants had researched Columbine or cited it as an inspiration. Threat assessment leaders in the United States have encountered numerous Columbine-influenced cases unknown to the public, including Los Angeles–based forensic psychologist Kris Mohandie, who has evaluated multiple youth offenders fixated on the 1999 attack. The Columbine perpetrators “had this grandiose fantasy that they would be remembered,” he noted. “What’s perverted about the whole thing is that, in a way, they got what they wanted.”
The Columbine effect also became a problem of language. Whereas gun rampages had once become known generically as “going postal,” now they were “doing a Columbine.” News media and public officials alike had grown accustomed to referring to school shootings as “Columbine-style attacks,” and the emulation problem reached a stark new level of impact just ahead of the event’s twentieth “anniversary”—another term whose default usage in reference to mass shootings may well lend them unwanted significance.
In April 2019, an eighteen-year-old woman who authorities said was “infatuated” with the Columbine massacre flew from Miami to Denver and headed to a retail shop in Littleton, where she bought a pump-action shotgun. Authorities closed and locked down hundreds of schools in the Denver region as a precaution while police searched for her, soon finding her dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the nearby mountains.
The deleterious effects of digital media also have a promising side. Through the 2010s, FBI researchers found that rampage shooters were announcing their grievances and violent ideation on social media with greater frequency before attacking—a significant development among a pool of offenders who were otherwise often socially withdrawn. In some instances, open-source content could reveal a lot to investigators about whom a threatening subject might be targeting and why.
A broad-based investigation remained key, however, as partial information could be misleading. In a case at a government agency in the nation’s capital shortly after the 2013 mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, for example, the subject, who was socially awkward and kept to himself around the office, had freaked out coworkers by riffing about guns on social media and leaving pictures of unusual-looking weapons on his desk. Threat assessment professionals who went to speak with him at his home found that he was an avid collector of antique and exotic firearms and had no interest in violence.
Yet it was becoming a lot less feasible to evaluate case subjects effectively without understanding how those individuals behaved in the digital realm. Andre Simons and his BAU colleagues had come to see that a growing number of plotters and attackers were, as Simons put it, “living more vividly online than in the physical world.”
It is crucial to understand that shooter-focused news coverage and social media content do not cause a person to commit violence, nor is there scientific evidence that graphically violent video games, movies, or music do. In the world of behavioral threat assessment, the more useful way to think about influences from media and entertainment is to recognize their possible association with warning behaviors—as potential additional clues to an individual heading down a dangerous path.
An example of this came in a form of leakage that marked a murder-suicide in 2013 at Arapahoe High School in suburban Denver. The day before the shooting, capping off months of troubling aggression and other warning signs, the eighteen-year-old perpetrator announced in front of peers and a teacher that he had recently bought a shotgun and named it after a legendary rock star. “Don’t make me show you Kurt Cobain,” he sneered at a classmate who angered him. Other comments and photos of the weapon that he shared were reported by one student to a school psychologist. The relevance was not that the music of Nirvana was somehow responsible for motivating what was to come; it was the fact that Cobain had taken his own life with a shotgun. The perpetrator’s use of the namesake was a signal of suicidal rage and despair as he neared the end of his pathway to violence.
Various other cases indicate how a focus on violence-themed entertainment can connect with warning behaviors. It can be a type of fixation, or what earlier threat assessment research referred to as “aggression immersion,” a way for perpetrators to nurture their grievance-based ideas about committing an attack. The 2011 hit song “Pumped Up Kicks” from indie band Foster the People, whose lyrics are told from a school shooter’s perspective, turned up in menacing communications in cases handled by Jeffco’s team as well as in a case in New Jersey involving a threat from a high school student.
The catchy pop tune had been a focus for a twelve-year-old who opened fire at his middle school in Nevada, as well as for the Parkland perpetrator, whose brother had witnessed him strutting around the house to the song while mimicking attacking with a shotgun he’d acquired. Salem-Keizer threat assessment leaders saw cases over the years where they theorized that first-person shooter video games had served as a tool of psychological “rehearsal” for individuals planning attacks—not as a motive for what they planned to do, but as a way they felt they could prepare themselves for the act.
In contrast to age-old debates over “dangerous” pop culture, however, the influence of sensational news attention on mass shooters suggests a unique opportunity for the media to contribute to prevention. Because many perpetrators behave with an expectation of gaining notoriety, altering the scale and tone of coverage might help diminish some plotters’ motivation and the overall copycat effect. News organizations can rethink (as some have) where and how to name and describe attackers, and how to handle material like shooter images and “manifestos.”
It is a matter of proportion, about better balancing reporting in the public interest with denying offenders any sense of glorification or a megaphone for their screeds. News outlets are the driving force in this regard, although because social media users sometimes spread photos, videos, or manifestos found online through other avenues, tech companies also have a role to play in diminishing shooter content, as exemplified in vivid terms by the ex–TV reporter’s snuff footage from Roanoke.
After Aurora and then Sandy Hook in 2012, some major news media began changing their approach, in part thanks to efforts by Caren and Tom Teves of Colorado, whose twenty-four-year-old son, Alex, was murdered in the movie theater attack. The grieving parents’ push to change media behavior through a “No Notoriety” campaign was embraced by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who started declining to name shooters or show their faces on the air and instead prioritized reporting on victims and survivors.
Three years later, amid the Aurora perpetrator’s trial and the first “social media murder” in Roanoke and the subsequent community college massacre in Oregon, the advocacy movement gained momentum. In late October 2015, People magazine announced a new policy to “use strong caution when deciding whether to show these murderers’ photos or use their names, and not allow ourselves to be a platform for their messages.” It was a long way from the 1980s when the magazine ran an article spotlighting Theresa Saldana’s near lethal stalker, including his tactics later picked up on by Rebecca Schaeffer’s killer.
Threat assessment experts recommended in particular avoiding the posed images that offenders post online to look tough or cool, as I had reported earlier that fall in an investigation of media influence on mass shooters. Those experts further suggested hewing to dispassionate language in news coverage and avoiding descriptions of perpetrators that might bestow a sense of prestige, such as “lone wolf,” or even “school shooter.” The time was also long past due to bury the pair from Columbine, whose smiling portraits were once framed on the cover of Time magazine as “The Monsters Next Door.”
“Those two offenders should be made as anonymous as possible,” Kris Mohandie told me two decades after their attack, when the “infatuated” suicidal young woman who’d traveled from Florida caused the widespread school closures in the Denver region. “I think the reporting needs to downplay the people who did it, while underscoring what we’ve learned about how to manage these kinds of people, the things wrong with them.”
In fall 2019, a big movie premiere showed why better practices could really matter, putting an unwanted legacy on display. When the Hollywood blockbuster Joker was set to open seven years after the Aurora massacre, director Todd Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix found themselves fending off sharp criticism that their graphically violent film could inspire attacks. Movie theater chains once again were compelled to prohibit fans from wearing costumes, and the Los Angeles Police Department stepped up patrols around screenings, citing the film’s “historical significance.” An article in the Hollywood Reporter noted that James Holmes, who was serving life in prison with no possibility for parole, would be “forever linked to the Batman film.”
Moreover, the copycat effect was now specifically present in this context. Further research under way from the US Secret Service would include the case of a nineteen-year-old who had threatened to shoot up his high school graduation ceremony—who had dyed his hair red in homage to Holmes and expressed a desire to meet him in person.In contrast to age-old debates over “dangerous” pop culture, however, the influence of sensational news attention on mass shooters suggests a unique opportunity for the media to contribute to prevention.
Despite a push by some survivors and academic researchers in recent years for news media to implement a total blackout of mass shooters’ identities, it remains strongly in the public interest to identify and report on the perpetrators, not least to ensure accuracy about these high-impact events. Going back more than a decade, innocent people have been falsely identified online as the culprits of mass attacks.
In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre carried out by the Korean-born Seung-Hui Cho, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist picked up on bloggers’ erroneous blame of a young man of Chinese background, who was also fingered as a suspect on the air by Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera and faced a wave of death threats. That was even before the explosion of social media, whose exacerbation of the problem included a college student wrongly accused for the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013, and the spread of a false claim in October 2015 that the community college shooter in Oregon was Muslim.
Advocates for change further suggested that media should adhere to “strategic silence” on mass shooters, a misnomer whose gist was to downplay rather than wholly ignore the perpetrators. A better term instead might be “strategic diminishment.” Clear-eyed reporting can cast essential light on how and why people commit these attacks while intentionally shrinking the frame around the offenders.
Notably, journalism uncovering the behaviors and backgrounds of mass shooters has long been valuable to building threat assessment knowledge. From the Secret Service’s Exceptional Case Study Project in the 1990s to the FBI BAU’s various in-depth research initiatives in more recent decades, experts in the field have long cited news reporting as a significant source of context and data.
After the staggering attack on the Las Vegas Strip in 2017, American news media made some heartening progress. National television broadcasts generally refrained from highlighting images of the perpetrator, and in the initial days after the attack, print editions of the hometown Las Vegas Review-Journal, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times all focused their front pages around vivid scenes of first responders and survivors. Three of the papers included unglamorous thumbnail-size photos of the attacker, while on the front pages of the three others, his image was nowhere to be found.
In March 2019, the world saw strategic diminishment modeled brilliantly by New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern with her response to the attack on the two Christchurch mosques. Her government moved quickly to suppress the massacre footage, and she personally embraced and brought global attention to the victims and survivors. Although the assailant had been publicly identified and his court proceedings would later be broadcast, Ardern drew a bright line when she addressed Parliament in the aftermath: “He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless.”
From Trigger Points: Inside the Mission To Stop Mass Shootings in America © 2022 by Mark Follman. Reproduced by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved