It is already the worst mass killing in American history. With the perpetrator reportedly pledging allegiance to ISIS, it may also emerge as the worst U.S. terrorist attack since 9/11. And last night’s horrific shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando unfolded across the social media and communication technology that now suffuse our lives.
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Cell phones gave those outside the nightclub a channel to the unfolding events—for better or worse. One terrified mother received a series of texts from her son, trapped in a bathroom as the gunman advanced. That victim’s fate is not currently known.
Other tweets apparently came from witnesses still inside the club (many now deleted), and those who escaped chronicled the aftermath.
A Snapchat video, taken by stunned bystanders and unearthed by the Daily Mail, captured the sounds of a hail of semiautomatic gunfire.
Meanwhile, Facebook activated its Safety Check feature to help users locate friends and loved ones who may have been in danger.
Orlando police provided frequent updates as the event unfolded, including its grisly conclusion.
In the aftermath of the shooting, social media have become an outlet for expressions of collective anguish and despair, with citizens and heads of state alike using the hashtag #prayersfororlando.
The same platforms have also carried more sinister sentiments. An ISIS-affiliated Twitter account broadcast ominous threats using the hashtag #pulse.
Some have used the occasion to press their political agendas, including sentiments on both sides of the gun control debate.
Actress turned conservative commentator Stacey Dash highlighted the shooter’s party affiliation.
A few have attacked homosexuals.
They were joined, in what may have been a case of bad timing, by Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.
It is also likely that social media played a role in the initial radicalization of the shooter, currently identified as Omar Mateen, a 29 year old U.S. citizen. Platforms like Twitter (TWTR), Facebook, and YouTube (GOOG) have become a major source of concern for law enforcement and military forces, as tech-savvy organizations like ISIS use them to mobilize sympathizers across borders.
In the coming days and weeks, it seems certain that those same platforms will help those in America and around the world understand what happened, debate its implications, and, perhaps, begin to heal.