In America, terrible acts of violence are often met with handmade signs, bunches of flowers, and teddy bears. Makeshift memorials to shooting victims are flooded with these sorts of objects, and they spring up reliably wherever a horrifying event has occurred.
After the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, town officials had to rent a warehouse to house all of the gifts and donations that people sent.
But in the era of social media, there’s another place where people gather to react to acts of violence: on the Facebook page of the suspected perpetrator.*
Within minutes of news reports identifying the man who shot at members of Congress while they played baseball this morning, people had found what appeared to be the suspect’s Facebook profile. And then they flooded it with comments. In the span of about an hour, there were hundreds of messages. And then thousands. Things like:
“Rot in Hell buddy!!!”
“Have fun ‘fighting the man’ in prison loser!”
“Another Bernie demorat. You suck and deserve to die in prison”
“I hope you survive bro. I hope you get waterboarded for weeks, then tossed in solitary for life.”
“Dang he's getting his page blown up lmao good”
“You will not win this war”
“Enjoy prison or death”
And, like so many areas where people congregate online, the string of comments devolved quickly into vitriol and political arguments—prompted in part by the large photo of Bernie Sanders atop the man’s profile page. Then there are the memes, so many of them: silly images of Donald Trump, cartoon frogs, disparaging images of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, plenty of objectionable language—pretty much what you find on every other social platform.
Among the comments, there is the occasional attempt at unity: “Sad, Sad situation,” one person wrote. “We are a very divided Country. Some way, some how we need to attempt to find middle ground and move forward.”
“There is an unbelievable amount of hate in these comments,” another person wrote. “It's really sad to see that this is what society has boiled down to.”
Such comments were, for the most part, either mocked outright or ignored. And when President Donald Trump announced in remarks from the Rose Garden that the suspect had died, dozens of people cheered the news in real-time on his Facebook page.
Watching reaction unfold in this space is a surreal and disturbing activity—but it’s not exactly surprising. On platforms where anyone can publish, people congregate around what interests them. Just as people use hashtags to find people with similar interests on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, the suspect’s very identity became a temporary newsfeed of sorts. The barrier to entry for participation is practically nonexistent. People might not show up at a shooting suspect’s house to register their dismay; but it’s effortless to swing by his Facebook page and press “post.”
As of this writing, the comments were coming in too quickly to keep up.
* After this story was published, Facebook removed the shooting suspect’s page. A spokesperson for Facebook sent me this statement: “We are shocked and saddened by the incident that took place this morning. We have identified and removed the suspect’s profiles for violating our community standards.”