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

(CNN) Within hours of Saturday’s mass shooting at a Texas mall, some Twitter users shared gruesome photos of bloodied bodies purportedly from the crime scene. At least one image appeared to be of a child.

Those images have been harder to avoid on the platform, according to some users, in part because they were shared by accounts that paid to be verified — an option introduced by owner Elon Musk that can increase the visibility of a user’s tweets .

“Graphic content often made it to Twitter in the past, but it was more likely to be downgraded and hard to find,” said Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, in a tweet. “The new screwed up system seems to prioritize these sneaky accounts and feature material at the top of the feed. Terrible.”

Jennifer Massia, a CNN contributor and senior news writer at The Trace, a nonprofit news outlet dedicated to gun news, said the images “were inevitable.” She added: “I was shocked that this video and these images stayed on Twitter for as long as they did… In another era of Twitter, they wouldn’t have been shared, they would have been removed immediately.”

Twitter, which has cut much of its public relations team, did not respond to a request for comment.

The apparent distribution of these images has reinvigorated scrutiny of how social media platforms handle graphic content from mass shootings. Social media platforms generally have policies that restrict the sharing of graphic content, with some exceptions. On Twitter, for example, users are technically prohibited from sharing content that shows “gratuitous gore,” a category that includes “dismembered or mutilated people.” Other forms of graphic media may be allowed as long as the user marks their account as sensitive.

But it also reignited a broader debate over the potential value of sharing graphic photos to shape public discourse at a time when mass shootings are a regular occurrence in the United States.

There were 202 mass shootings in the U.S. in the first five months of this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, compared to 647 mass shootings in 2022. The nonprofit and CNN define mass shootings as those in which four or more people are shot, except of the shooter.

Saturday’s attack was the second-deadliest mass shooting in the U.S. so far this year. Eight people were killed and at least seven others were wounded when a gunman opened fire at an outlet mall in Allen, Texas, according to local authorities.

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

But in a a tweet On Saturday night, Spainhauer slammed a photo from the mall that was shared on social media. “I don’t want to see the picture floating around social media that was taken while I was calling 911 and trying to get help at the Allen stores,” he wrote. “The least you could do is help, not take pictures of people on the verge of death.”

Meanwhile, Massia said she was “shocked at how many people” are debating the merits of posting such photos. Some, she said, may not have wanted to post the images themselves, but also felt “maybe it’s time to talk about it.”

The judgment of whether to show gruesome images of acts of violence to the public dates back decades in the United States. In 1955, a photo of a murdered black teenager was published in Jet Magazine at the insistence of his mother.

This haunting photo of Emmett Till’s mutilated body was etched in the minds of many as an enduring image of the era’s racist violence—and many linked the publication of the image to helping encourage Americans to join the civil rights movement.

Most recently, the debate reignited as Americans reacted with shock and horror to the deadly school shooting that occurred less than a year ago in Uvalde, Texas.

“It’s time, with the permission of a surviving parent, to show what a slaughtered 7-year-old looks like,” David Boardman, dean of Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication, tweeted after the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde that left nineteen children and two adults dead.

Boardman added in a tweet at the time that he “couldn’t have imagined saying this years ago,” but argued that by showing the public these images, “Maybe only then will we find the courage to do more than just thoughts and prayers.

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