Livestreamed violence compounds trauma, inspires copycats: experts – USA TODAY

Hours after the start of a deadly shooting rampage in Memphis last week, police finally got a tip that would prompt a citywide lockdown and eventually lead to an arrest: The gunman was on Facebook Live threatening to hurt people.
The violence across Tennessee’s second-largest city that left four dead and three injured is the latest example of why advocates have been pushing tech companies since the 2019 mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, to draft policies against livestreamed attacks and quickly scrub the videos from their platforms.
Although a spokesperson for Facebook said the content from Memphis was flagged and removed even before police warned the public about the posts, what appeared to be video taken by the shooter was not hard to find online in the following days.
Psychologists and online-extremism researchers told USA TODAY that the digital trail of evidence left by violent criminals can inspire copycats in the dark corners of the internet, and exacerbate the trauma of both the community and a country already facing a massive mental health crisis.
“I’ve been having the same conversation for the last decade,” said Desmond Upton Patton, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies the impact social media has on mental health and violence for people of color. “We need to pay close attention to it, we need to devote resources to it, we need to study it, we need to intervene.”
When a crime occurs on a livestream, some viewers will flag it, allowing content moderators to review and then remove it.
By the time that happens, however, copies have typically already been made and moved to other platforms – some of which don’t have an easy way to report violent content, said Megan Squire, a computer scientist in North Carolina who uses data science techniques to understand extremist online communities.
“There’s kind of a strange subculture of people that enjoy having and watching that content,” Squire told USA TODAY. “It’s like a currency.”
Squire said videos of the Memphis shooting have already been archived and shared by sites that both generally collect gore, and by racist groups using it for political purposes due to the shooter’s race.
It’s not just mass shooters who are livestreaming their crimes.
In 2017, four Chicago youths appeared to beat and torture a special needs student while streaming on Facebook Live. Months later in the same city, dozens of people watched on Facebook Live, but didn’t called police, as a group of men sexually assaulted a 15-year-old girl.
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Those who livestream acts of violence may be chasing a brief, dark status of notoriety, and participating in acts of exhibitionism, said N.G. Berrill, a forensic psychologist.
“It’s a way of almost flexing one’s muscles and differentiating yourself from the crowd,” Berrill said. “There is a sense of being grandiose, be more powerful. And then having it be on TV, or livestreaming it so that people can see it on their internet.”
Berrill, executive director of the New York Center for Neuropsychology & Forensic Behavioral Science, also warned that others considering acts of violence may be inspired by such images and videos as technology makes them more accessible.
The gunman who opened fire at a Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York, in May while streaming on Twitch claimed to have found inspiration from the Christchurch shooting spree.
He described in writing how he watched the New Zealand gunman’s live video from Facebook and copied it by broadcasting his own rampage, the New York Times reported. He chose Twitch because the platform allowed footage of the 2019 terror attack in Halle, Germany, to remain on servers for an hour, according to his statement.
Squire said the Christchurch shooter also copied elements from the Halle shooting.
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“There’s a pretty strong copycat effect,” Squire said. “The evidence would show that they definitely serve to inspire people … You don’t want to inspire future crimes and you don’t want to normalize the ones that already happened.”
The casual nature with which the Memphis shooter went about talking and livestreaming before gunning down people in various locations demonstrates how crimes can be made to look simple and replicable, Berrill told USA TODAY.
“I think it makes it look easier, I really do, if you’re not right there, and you’re not experiencing the horror,” he said. “It would be seductive if you’re that sick and vulnerable … the horror of these events are sanitized.”
For the communities terrorized by the initial violence – as well as onlookers around the country – livestreams and media coverage of shootings typically only compound the horror.
“It is humiliating that someone would treat human life so shallowly and be in your community, and perhaps be killing your neighbors or someone you know, and elevating it … as a perverse form of entertainment for people to watch,” Berrill said.
After the Buffalo shooting, Wayne Jones told The Associated Press he found out his mother, 65-year-old Celestine Chaney, was killed when someone sent him a clip of the livestream. His girlfriend said she reported nearly 100 Facebook pages in one day because pictures and videos from the livestream kept appearing on her feed.
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“You couldn’t escape it; there was nowhere you could go,” Danielle Simpson said at the time.
The images can also cause “vicarious trauma” for viewers who have experienced gun violence in their own lives, according to Patton, the Pennsylvania professor. Nearly 60% of adults said they or someone they care about has experienced gun violence, according to a 2018 survey conducted by polling firm SurveyUSA.
“This is triggering a lot of feelings as it relates to anxiety and depression,” Patton said. “Worry that this could potentially happen to you as well.”
And research shows gun violence can take a mental health toll on more than just direct witnesses and survivors. Mass shootings were cited as the most common source of stress among American adults in a 2019 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association in the wake of shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. 
Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychology science, medicine and public health at the University of California, Irvine, and her colleagues have studied the impact of media consumption following the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the Boston Marathon bombing and the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Florida, and found a “cycle of distress.”
“The more people engage with that media, the more likely they are to be distressed and the more distressed they are, the more likely they are to engage in media surrounding the next tragedy,” Silver said.
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Tech companies say they rapidly and thoroughly remove graphic videos from their platforms, but researchers say the process can be slow, and better tools must be developed to identify hateful and violent content.
Squire, the computer scientist in North Carolina, said larger companies like Facebook may miss violent content because of the sheer volume of reports they get each day. Some companies are trying to use algorithms to detect guns or other warning signs, but she said the technology is fledgling.
“The deck is stacked against success. It’s just going to be hard to fully fix this problem,” she said. “It’s going to take a long, long time to get those techniques. So until then, we’re in this messy middle where we have to have a human component.”
Contributing: The Associated Press
Contact Breaking News Reporter N’dea Yancey-Bragg at or follow her on Twitter @NdeaYanceyBragg. Contact Breaking News Reporter Cady Stanton at or follow her on Twitter @cady_stanton.


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