Facebook says it’s diligently removing graphic videos of journalist Alison Parker’s murder but they’re still up. Sheila Flynn speaks to her father, who is fighting for change
Andy Parker will never forget pacing through his Virginia home on the morning of August 26, 2015. The boyfriend of his daughter, Alison – a dogged and beloved reporter for Roanoke television station WDBJ – called to say shots had been fired where she was filming and no one could get ahold of the young journalist.
Mr Parker repeatedly tried to reach his daughter on her cell phone – to no avail. Then he and his wife, Barbara, got the dreaded call: Alison was dead. She had been murdered. She was only 24.
Her parents collapsed on the floor of their home.
Mr Parker has picked himself up since then, though – forging through the grief and spurred to action by the murder of his daughter, shot dead in cold blood by a former coworker. The retired headhunter has become a dedicated advocate for gun control. And now he’s taking on the biggest players in social media.
“This is the way I can honour her – through action,” he told The Independent.
Ms Parker and her cameraman, Adam Ward, were ambushed on a humdrum day while interviewing a local official about the 50th anniversary of a lake for a live broadcast. A disgruntled former coworker, Vester Lee Flanagan II – who’d been fired two years beforehand for disruptive conduct – walked up to them, filming the entire thing from his point of view, and shot dead the reporter and Mr Ward, 27.
He uploaded the footage to social media before leading police on a car chase and ending his own life. Those clips – taken with the killer’s phone, showing his hand holding the gun and firing as he walked up to the trio – continue to circulate on platforms including Facebook and Instagram.
Mr Parker and his attorneys on Tuesday filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission asking it to take action against Facebook and Instagram for failing to remove footage of Mr Parker’s daughter’s killing. The videos have repeatedly been flagged to the platforms as problematic and glorifying violence – but they remain.
On Wednesday, the day after the FTC complaint was filed, the specific links reported to Facebook remained available and were viewed by The Independent.
The young reporter’s grieving father has already filed FTC complaints against Google and YouTube for similarly failing to keep clips of the tragedy off of their platforms.
“Until somebody holds them accountable, and it’s got to be Congress, this stuff is going to continue to happen,” Mr Parker told The Independent. “It just angers me to no end … it’s distressing to know that these platforms are making money from my daughter’s murder.”
He continued: “It just galls me that they have the ability to remove the stuff but they won’t – because they make money from it. And to me, it’s unconscionable … just knowing it’s there, it does revictimize you. It’s like this cloud hanging over you.
“I’m trying to search for the right metaphor here, but it is something that just stays with you – and it haunts you. Until they do something about it, it’s always going to be out there. It’s almost like a chronic disease.”
Mr Parker and his family, understandably, don’t seek out or watch the distressing videos themselves; other advocates do it for them and lodge complaints with platforms.
One of them is Eric Feinberg, vice president of content moderation for the Coalition for a Safer Web. He sent several links of the murder to the Georgetown Law Civil Rights Clinic, which helped Mr Parker file the complaint Tuesday.
Those links, specifically reported to Facebook, were still up on Wednesday and viewed by The Independent – despite assurances from the tech giant that it was doing everything it could to remove violent footage of the murders and similar crimes.
“These videos violate our policies and we are continuing to remove them from the platform as we have been doing since this disturbing incident first occurred,” a Facebook spokesperson told The Independent. “We are also continuing to proactively detect and remove visually similar videos when they are uploaded.”
They did not immediately respond when queried further about why the complaint-cited videos remained up a day after the FTC filing.
The Parker family and Mr Feinberg, however, had plenty to say.
“This is an advertising-supported platform,” Mr Feinberg told The Independent, adding: “Name any other media that advertisers would put up with this.
“This could happen to anybody. Look what Andy has to go through. They don’t care”.
According to Peter Romer-Friedman, an attorney who has brought several cases against Facebook, the FTC has “broad authority to investigate and prosecute deceptive practices,” he told AP.
But that doesn’t mean the FTC has to investigate. The body is legally able to ignore complaints filed by non-government parties, Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman told AP – adding that, for that reason, many complaints “are often just for show.”
Mr Parker, tired but resolved, told The Independent on Wednesday that he hoped the added pressure on Facebook – given devastating weekend revelations from whistleblower Frances Haugen – would spur the company and other social media giants to be more vigilant.
He said he was grateful for the whistleblower “validating everything that I have maintained over the last five years – and it is critical.”
“We thought, ‘This is the time to do this’ – and maybe between her [Haugen’s] effort and mine, we’ll get the attention of the FTC” and “nudge Congress to do something, as well,” he said.
“The reality is, they need to address it now – because Facebook, and YouTube, for all the good that they do … they’re contributing to the disintegration of the fabric of society in this country and the world.
“If not now, when?”
He said he was “not surprised” the videos were still up on Facebook and Instagram on Wednesday because “they’ve been lying for five years.”
He added: “The fact that they lied again … that should get somebody’s attention in Congress. It should get the FTC’s attention.”
Through it all, however, the Parker family and their extended network want to ensure their daughter and her legacy are not forgotten. Mr Parker wrote a book. His wife started a foundation in the young reporter’s name. Her boyfriend, Chris Hurst – who first broke the news of the shooting to Ms Parker’s parents – now represents the 12th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. The family of Mr Ward, her cameraman, have established scholarships in his name.
Mr Parker has a picture of his daughter as the home screen of his phone and wears an “Alison Forever” wristband.
“She’s always with me,” he told The Independent.
“She inspired me,” Mr Parker said, noting the advocacy mantle he’s taken up since his daughter’s murder. “I feel like I’m following in my daughter’s footsteps.”
He added: “What you saw on TV was who she was. She could come in and light up a room.”
His efforts are not only about expanding gun control, pursuing better social media protections and remembering his daughter; they’re also about helping other families avoid pain, he said.
“We’ve got a hole in our soul that will never heal … you never really get rid of it; it’s a melancholy that will always be there.”
That’s why his labours to curb gun availability and social media violent content are “to try to save other children, families, from going through the kind of devastation that Barbara and I went through.”
Removing content such as murder clips will go a long way towards doing that, he said.
“We want people to remember Alison for the way she lived and not the way she died,” he told The Independent.