Bryce Williams (AKA Vester Lee Flanagan) followed media logic when he assassinated two Virginia Journalists with a Glock handgun in one hand and a GoPro camera in the other. Using a gun was nothing new, but using a high-quality hand-held camera to record and publicize the carnage through social media was novel. This mediated-murder was a dramatic example of the prevalence of the media syndrome: The role of information technology and communication formats in social life for personal conduct and social issues. Television and social media have changed our lives as widespread media use has become more personal, visual, and instantaneous.
I have studied the evolution of the media syndrome for 35 years. Like “Jihadi John”– the hooded ISIS executioner, and the Parisian “Charlie Hebdo” gunmen, Williams’ acts were produced with television and social media formats in mind, including grammar, scheduling, and visual (video) emphasis that have been institutionalized in newscasts and much of public life. The overall impetus is to be more entertaining and compatible with popular culture criteria and expectations. Audiences communicate through social media guidelines, and actually participate in completing as well as broadcasting messages.
The killings reflect an understanding of coverage of other shootings, knowledge of audience expectations, as well as the media industry’s interests in entertainment, and procedures. As Farhood Manjoo reported (NYT, Aug. 26, 2015), Williams was well versed with “the media ritual of killing”; he organized his tweeting and digital video release around updates of a Facebook page. He was not merely interested in killing someone: That happens often but seldom makes the national news. He was making a statement, and the production depended on following basic media logic because the mass communication of the act was a critical part.
While Williams, who had worked as a TV reporter, had more technical experience than many other actors, he was like so many other deadly theatrical attackers. We all heard about the killings, were appalled by them, but now must be mindful of the dark side of the media syndrome when individuals believe that the quest for justice, significance, popularity, and fame can be achieved with a gun and a camera.