Graphic images of Texas mall shooting spread on Twitter, rekindling debate on how much to share

Within hours of the mass shooting at a Texas mall outlet, some Twitter users shared gruesome pictures of bloodied bodies, allegedly from the crime scene. At least one image appeared to depict a child.

According to some users, the platform had a harder time avoiding these images because they were shared from accounts that had paid to be verified, an option introduced by Elon Musk, the owner of Twitter, which can elevate the visibility of a user.

“The new system seems to prioritize and present material at the top that is vile and awful,” said Emily Bell, the director of Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. “It is hard to find the finds these tweets often onto its way onto Twitter in the past, but it is likely to be downranked more often now if it contains graphic material.”

They would have immediately been taken off, they wouldn’t have been circulating on Twitter in a different era… I was shocked by those images and videos as long as they stayed on Twitter,” said Jennifer Mascia, a senior news writer at non-profit journalism outlet Trace and a contributor for CNN.

Twitter, which has reduced a significant portion of its public relations staff, did not provide a response to a comment inquiry.

Other forms of graphic media may be allowed as long as users account for their sensitivity. For example, Twitter technically prohibits users from sharing content that falls under the category of “gore” or “gratuitous shows” which includes humans being mutilated or dismembered. However, there are certain exceptions to this policy. The apparent spread of these images has revived scrutiny around how social media platforms handle graphic content, particularly in relation to mass shootings.

In America, frequent occurrences of mass shootings coincide with the resurgence of a broader discussion on the potential significance of sharing explicit images to influence public conversations.

As per the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 202 instances of mass shootings in the United States during the initial five months of this year, in contrast to the 647 mass shootings that occurred in 2022. Mass shootings, as outlined by the nonprofit organization and CNN, refer to incidents where four or more individuals are shot, excluding the perpetrator.

Local authorities reported that a total of eight individuals lost their lives and at least seven additional individuals sustained injuries when an individual armed with a firearm initiated gunfire at the retail center in Allen, Texas. This incident, which occurred on Saturday, ranks as the second most fatal mass shooting in the United States thus far this year.

In an interview with CNN affiliate KTVT on Sunday, former police officer and Army veteran Steven Spainhouer, who encountered the described horror scene, said, “I felt her pulse and pulled her head to the side, and she had no face… The girl walked up first.”

He wrote, “You could have at least assisted instead of capturing images of individuals on the brink of death. I have no desire to come across the photo circulating on social media, which was taken while I was making an emergency call and attempting to provide assistance at the Allen Outlets.” Spainhouer criticized a photo from the mall that was being widely shared on social media in a tweet on Saturday night.

Spainhouer expressed his disappointment and sadness when interviewed by the press department, stating that he was let down by the actions of the account. The department mentioned that they conducted a follow-up interview with him, noting that he is not considered a credible witness to the incident. Allen, the police, disputed parts of Spainhouer’s account, pointing out “inconsistencies” between the facts of the investigation and his statements to the media.

Mascia stated that she was contemplating whether it was necessary to discuss the images publicly, as there was a considerable amount of debate surrounding the level of shock experienced by many individuals.

In 1955, prompted by his mother, Jet Magazine published a photograph of a Black teenager who had been killed. The debate over whether to display graphic images of violent acts to the public has been ongoing for decades in the United States.

This haunting picture of Emmett Till’s mutilated body seared into the minds as an enduring image of the racist violence of the era, linked many Americans to join the Civil Rights Movement and galvanized the publication’s image.

Less than twelve months ago, the American public in Uvalde, Texas, responded with a mixture of astonishment and terror to the tragic incident of a school shooting, reigniting the ongoing discussion on this matter in more recent times.

In the aftermath of the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, a total of 19 children and two deceased adults were left. David Boardman, the dean of the College of Communication and Media at Temple University, tweeted that it is heartbreaking to see the tragic loss of a 7-year-old child, with the permission of a surviving parent.

Perhaps only at that moment will we discover the bravery to go beyond mere contemplation and supplications,” but contended that by revealing these visuals to the general public, Boardmen included in his tweet back then that he “couldn’t have envisioned uttering this in the past.”