Early Thursday morning, a 24-year old named Randy Stair showed up at the Weis supermarket where he was employed in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania for his overnight shift. According to The Washington Post, shortly after arriving, Stair began barricading the supermarket door with wooden pallets before opening fire on his coworkers with a pair of pistol grip shotguns. Stair fired a total of 59 shots, killing three of his coworkers before taking his own life.
Shortly before leaving for the supermarket, Stair posted a video to YouTube called "Goodbye." The video features a number of animated characters derived from the Nickelodeon animated series, Danny Phantom. In the cartoon Stair created, characters were portrayed as school shooters turned into ghosts.
Along with the 42-minute YouTube video, Stair tweeted links to a number of media files on a separate website, including his "Suicide Tapes" and journal. Stair posted a Word document that listed his multiple accounts on Twitter, Facebook, SoundCloud, Instagram, Bandcamp, and other platforms. He also posted numerous videos, some of which allude to his desire to carry out the shooting, others referencing it directly. In one 36-minute video, he lays out a detailed plan for the shooting.
The entire dump of files is similar to a press kit that is designed to be downloaded and distributed, which is exactly what multiple media publications did with Stair's social media posts after the shooting. Facebook and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) had removed Stair's accounts by Saturday. YouTube did not remove Stair's channel until Monday afternoon. Twitter has yet to remove Stair's accounts.
Each of these social media companies has public policies stating that their platforms should not be used to spread violent content and threats, but with no coordinated response after the murders, finding Stair's writings and videos remained easy for several days. Both YouTube and Twitter left the content up for days after being made aware of it by the press. We decided to not link to these stories or Stair's social media posts in an effort to limit any contribution to the "contagion effect" of mass shootings.
Since Saturday afternoon, we've reached out to YouTube multiple times, but have yet to receive a response. At 1PM EDT on Monday, YouTube took down Stair's channel, saying the "account has been terminated due to multiple or severe violations of YouTube's policy on violence."
On Saturday, Motherboard provided Twitter with Stair's handle and explained the nature of the content it was sharing. Twitter told us that it doesn't comment on individual accounts for privacy and security reasons. At the time of publication, at least eight of Stair's Twitter accounts were still live. Many of them reference his desire to carry out the shooting, and several link to a file sharing site where he dumped his videos and writings.
According to YouTube's Community Guidelines, the site's staff "reviews flagged videos 24 hours a day, 7 days a week" and any video content which "threatens people with serious acts of violence…will be removed from the site." Twitter's rules state that any accounts that make threats of violence "may be temporarily locked and/or subject to permanent suspension."
In the aftermath of the Isla Vista shooting spree in 2014, Elliot Rodger's YouTube manifesto describing why he was carrying out the murders was removed from the site the next day for violating YouTube's community guidelines about threats of violence. His profile and the rest of his videos, however, remained online since they didn't contain any content that was considered in violation of YouTube's guidelines.
Rodger's videos were eventually removed by his family members, although mirrored copies of the original video are still easily found on the site. Since the shooting, a number of copies of Stair's videos have also cropped up on YouTube.
We also spoke to the local Tunkhannock police department. A spokesperson wouldn't comment on whether it was aware that some of Stair's social media profiles were still online or if any effort had been made to remove them.
The persistence of Stair's social media presence points to the difficulty of completely filtering out disturbing content on social media platforms.
Although YouTube and other video hosting sites have small armies dedicated to sifting through the internet's detritus to remove content such as beheading videos and child pornography, the system isn't perfect: videos often slip through the cracks. There are some open questions: Why did YouTube take so long to remove Stair's channel even after we contacted the company? Why has Twitter left his profile up? And why weren't Stair's postings flagged prior to the murders?
The legacy of two decades of mass shootings in the United States has made it clear that media sensationalism can be a significant motivating factor in these attacks. As the recent Pennsylvania shooting reminds us, would-be killers are aware of the predictable nature of news coverage and have started to treat murder like a media event with ready-made press materials.
Social media has further complicated the issue by facilitating the proliferation of the original postings of the killers, even after their profile has been removed. This problem is compounded by the slow response times of social media platforms to flagged content, an issue which doesn't seem likely to be resolved soon.