Scenes from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, were viewed by millions of people almost live on Wednesday, with gunshots and screams recorded for everyone on the internet to see and hear.
Students recorded their classmates hiding in classrooms as shots rang out around them. Those videos were then uploaded to Snapchat, a messaging app particularly popular among teenagers. The videos were findable via Snap Maps, a new feature of the platform that collects videos by geographic location and makes them available to the public. Twitter also hosted first-person video, including one of a SWAT team entering a classroom.
Those videos circulated quickly on other social media platforms and made their way onto major news broadcasts. By Thursday morning, Google searches for Snapchat videos were among the fastest rising search terms related to the shooting.
It was another sign of how smartphones and social media have changed how people learn about and understand major events almost as they are happening. The shooting Wednesday, in which a teenage gunman killed 17 people, stands out as a particularly raw example of the immediate and uncensored way in which these scenes unfold.
For a country in which school shootings have become a regular occurence, the social media videos provided an important vantage point that isn’t otherwise available, said Alfred Hermida, director of the graduate school of journalism at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
“What it does is highlight the intensity of the event,” Hermida said. “Because if you're seeing video taken by somebody caught up in the middle of something as it happens, it's much more visceral and emotional than a TV reporter standing outside a building saying, ‘Three hours ago inside this building, this happened.’”
The ubiquity of smartphones combined with evolving social media platforms have steadily made it easier to record and distribute first-hand accounts of breaking news events. Twitter may have emerged first as a social media platform for breaking news, but Snapchat took the lead on Wednesday.
The role of social media, smartphones and citizen journalists in breaking news events has been the subject of heated debate among experts. First-hand accounts spread quickly, so may include inaccurate information. Misinformation spread on social media has found its way into Google and Facebook during breaking news events.
Karen North, a professor of digital social media at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Journalism in Los Angeles, said that first-person video can help people understand what it is like to experience tragic events.
“There is an overwhelming desire to try to step in the shoes of others to try to figure out what it would be like if I were there,” she said. “Social media postings allow us to step inside of that experience.”
But, she said, problems arise when videos from fast-moving crisis situations are posted unfiltered onto social media platforms when there are still unanswered questions, even though it’s important to document.
“Then that becomes public entertainment at that point,” she said.
Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University and a social media expert, said social media companies should provide more context, framing and warning labels when tragedies are captured using their platforms.
“It’s almost reality TV of school shootings,” she said. “This could be causing emotional harm to everyone who is consuming this without warning.”
Grygiel also said social media tends to underplay the gravity of these events.
“It’s being normalized in a strange way and not being presented in its seriousness,” she said.
Snapchat in particular has taken steps to address these issues. The company employs a team of journalists that work to find and substantiate content uploaded to its platform in times of breaking news.
On Thursday, Snapchat’s Maps feature, launched in June 2017, provided a new way for videos to be uploaded, checked and distributed almost as events happen. Less than a week ago, the company made its Maps feature available on desktop, in part as a tool for journalists.
Snapchat has sought to counter these problems in two ways: by limiting who can contribute to breaking news events, and by hiring journalists to make sure the videos that surface are vetted. Its Maps feature only pulls uploads from a geo-targeted area, limiting what reporters and the public can find.
Snapchat declined to comment.
Twitter has also been working to improve how it presents information during breaking news. The platform streamed local TV news outlets covering the shooting on Wednesday alongside its regular timeline — a first for the company. Google has also been working to filter out misinformation related to searches during breaking news.
Other tools, such as the ability to livestream via smartphone, have made social media a powerful force in breaking news events — a prospect that Hermida noted can also influence which events get covered, and which do not.
“The downside of that is that certain events get way more attention than other events because they're prominent on social media,” Hermida said.
Hermida said tragic events that happen in places where people don’t have smartphones to capture in-the-moment content can end up getting downplayed.
“The technology also shapes the news agenda, and the availability of these first-person videos will shape how those people cover it.” he said.
Note: NBCUniversal, parent company of NBC News, has a business relationship with Snapchat.