An Episode Illustrating What Social Media Is

The Story

A couple of days ago a young man took a firearm to school in Arlington, TX. He shot another student and a teacher. He was released on bond the next day and the social-media outrage machine heated up almost immediately. What the clickbait headlines did not tell us, however, is that the boy, according to his family, has been the victim of regular attacks at school, that the family has reported the attacks to school authorities but no one has done anything about it. This was his first year in the school after being in private schools. He was there voluntarily because he wanted the experience. His family claims that he was attacked for being wealthy.

What the outrage generating headlines and stories do not tell us is what the cell-phone video, taken by another student in class, shows us. The young man who did the shooting was beaten mercilessly by another, much larger student. At one point the assailant picked up the smaller student and threw him like a rag doll against the wall of the classroom and proceeded to beat him again with his fists. The smaller boy was curled up in a ball. Meanwhile the teacher, helpless, screamed in the background. The judge released the shooter on bond to home confinement with a monitor because the incident was not a case of a predator who went to school looking for victims. He was a student who was afraid for his life.

Had this episode occurred outside of school, the larger student would be liable to assault charges. I grew up in and fought my way through public school. I saw my share of fights and was in some of them. I took some beatings and delivered a couple but they were nothing like this. The video goes dark but the next clip, taken from another classroom—does a student in school record every class?—recorded the gunshots. Evidently, the smaller student pulled a weapon and shot his attacker multiple times. He also injured a teacher or a staff member. The assailant is in critical condition in a local hospital.

The Purpose And Nature Of Social Media

I am not justifying taking a firearm to school nor am I justifying the use of the firearm. The student who did the shooting will likely suffer significant consequences for his actions but this is not picture painted for us by clickbait headlines and social media posts designed to generate outrage by manipulating our fight or flight response. The point of this essay is to call attention to the way this complex story is being presented to us on social media.

The purpose of social media is not to inform but to titillate and outrage. The goal of the social media platforms is to get us to spend as much time there as possible and they do it by stimulating the worst in us. Remember, if you are not paying for a service (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Instagram), and you are not, then you are the product. Your eyeballs, as it were, your time viewing the site, is being sold to advertisers. Those who capitalize on tragedy by ginning up outrage are trying to boost the number of clicks and eyeballs on their websites. They do this by writing headlines and stories in such a way as to generate outrage. 

I do not know how this story will turn out but it is certain that this story is more complicated than most of the news media and social media are presenting it. There was a better way to deal with the violence that the student was facing at school. If, as his family claims, the school was unwilling to do anything (there were school resource officers on campus) then he should have transferred to another school or simply withdrawn from school. He is 18. He is a legal adult and able to complete school independently or at night. As it is he is facing a significant jail sentence.

Who of us knows the story behind the attacker? What is his home life like? Perhaps he is a sociopath or perhaps he is the victim of an abusive upbringing and the only way he knows how to deal with his rage is to prey upon those who are smaller than he? Again, this is not to excuse either party. The beating was wrong and the shooting was wrong. The attacker may pay for his crime with his life. If he survives he will live with the consequences for the rest of his life. The others who were injured directly or indirectly because of the shooting were innocent. The other students in the room and nearby will live with that episode for the rest of their lives. In real life gunfire is loud and just a little exposure without hearing protection can damage hearing permanently. PTSD is real. Most children are not prepared (or should not be) to witness a shooting and its violent, bloody aftermath. Real life is not like television and social media and much of contemporary tabloid news coverage will tell us none of that. 

Strategies For Survival

Now, more than ever before, when we are subject to a welter of misleading claims, manipulative headlines and stories intended not to inform but to inflame, we media consumers must exercise critical judgement. Ask yourself: is this really true? Is this headline or story seeking to inform or inflame? Is this the whole story or are facts and aspects being omitted in favor of a narrative? Read from more than one source. When possible, read local stories. News media websites now pick up and repeat stories from other cities for clicks. The national media may be writing about a story in Dallas from the comfort of a New York office. What does a reporter in New York really know about an event in Dallas? The initial outrage stories did not mention that there is video of the beating that precipitated the shooting. I stumbled upon it on social media. It was not posted by a professional media organization but by an individual. The shocking violence recorded in that video changed my perception of the story. That is the nature of facts and genuine information. They fill in the picture. As journalist Sheryl Atkisson says, “think for yourself. Do your own research.” This applies to all the news and social media you read and consume. 

For my part I use Instagram to view stories about dogs. I rarely use Facebook and then to see what can only be seen there. I am trying to use Twitter and not let it use me but I understand now what is the game: Twitter is intentionally warping reality by the very nature of the platform and by the intent of the company to manipulate users and create a false sense reality. Social media is a psychologically, emotionally, and intellectually dangerous neighborhood. Visit when you must but keep your head on a swivel and go home to real life.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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8 comments

  1. Generally, this is why I dropped FB a year ago, Instagram shortly after, and though Twitter was overall a good experience for to some very careful curating, eventually I had to drop that too. It’s just too much. Are we drunk like Paul says in Ephesians, only on spin and narratives?

  2. I had heard that the aggressor in the video may actually be the shooter. I just looked at the photo of the suspect and watched the video and based on the clothes and hair I do think the shooter could of been the one fighting not the one being beat.

  3. Thanks for the reminder. We are all becoming more emotional with everything we hear and are quick to jump based on “I read” or “I saw” instead of making sure we see the facts. There is lots of talk of fake news. Remembering this when you read something is important. Everything is written with a Bias, well almost everything. God has given us one book full of truths, and through His Word we can discern the things of this world. Thanks for all the work you do and love the Heidelblog!

  4. There’s also a story out of NJ where a teacher is being accused of removing a hijab from a little girl. There are throngs demanding that she be fired, and a smaller number of people actually threatening her. An article came out a day or so ago casting doubt on what was originally reported, and it looks like this teacher will be tarred and feathered for no reason. This rabid response to events is costing people jobs and putting them in danger…something has to give, although I don’t know what or how.

  5. It’s almost as though Screwtape himself has devised the current ethos. “ We haven’t got them all hooked on pornography, but social media and instant news seems to be even more successfully addictive to a much broader audience . Let’s turn up the rage.”

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