U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia. Screenshot of video call.
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia. Screenshot of video call.

Eight years after a gunman killed two Roanoke television journalists and wounded a third person, videos of the crime still circulate online.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, wrote Thursday to the chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission regarding online monoliths Google and Meta, who he said have failed to remove videos that depict the shootings. 

WDBJ-TV reporter Alison Parker and videographer Adam Ward died in August 2015 during a report from Smith Mountain Lake, after a former co-worker attacked them. Vicki Gardner, whom the two were interviewing at Bridgewater Plaza, was seriously wounded.

Both the live news footage and the shooter’s video continue to circulate on Google-owned YouTube, as well as on Meta products Facebook and Instagram, Warner wrote to FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan. Parker’s father, Andy Parker, has for years tried to have the footage removed, and he has testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about how it has affected his family.

Warner wrote to Khan that Andy Parker’s experience with the social media sites shows that they put the onus on Parker to remove the content.

“It is my understanding that Google responded to Mr. Parker’s complaints by directing him to flag and report each individual video of the attack on YouTube,” Warner wrote. “Further, Instagram’s policy states, ‘If you see a video or picture on Instagram that depicts the violent death of a family member, you can ask us to remove it. Once we’ve been notified, we will remove that specific piece of content.’

Andy Parker. Courtesy of Andy Parker.

“I am deeply troubled by this response, as the burden of finding and removing harmful content should not fall to victims’ families who are grieving their loved ones. This approach only serves to retraumatize them and inflict additional pain. Instead, I firmly believe that the responsibility lies solely with the platform to ensure that any content violating its own Terms of Service is removed expeditiously.”

Parker and the Georgetown University Law Clinic in March 2020 and October 2021 submitted complaints to the FTC, requesting that the commission investigate YouTube and Facebook, according to a news release from Warner’s office. According to their complaints, the sites have failed to enforce their terms of service by neglecting to remove videos of the murders, violating the FTC Act’s Section 5 prohibition against ”unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.”

Parker, in a phone interview Thursday, said that the law clinic was unsuccessful in getting any real help from Google and Meta themselves, and that he had still not heard from the FTC about whether it would act on the 2020 and 2021 complaints.

“Eight years ago, I would have said you’re crazy if we couldn’t have figured it out … or there wouldn’t have been a reasonable conclusion to this,” Parker said. “It still mystifies me and surprises me … and it’s not over.”

[Read more from Cardinal: Andy Parker, a nationally known gun-control advocate, last year sought the nomination as the Democratic candidate in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District.]

It began on Aug. 26, 2015, when Alison Parker and Ward were interviewing Gardner, then the Smith Mountain Lake Chamber of Commerce’s executive director, outside the chamber’s Moneta office. Former WDBJ reporter Vester Lee Flanagan, who’d been fired in 2013, recorded his attack on the three and posted the video on Facebook and Twitter.

Police found Flanagan, with apparently self-inflicted gunshot wounds that would prove fatal, in a rental car later that day in Falls Church. By then, the social media sites had suspended his accounts, but the video had already been widely downloaded, shared, reposted and, according to a New York Times report at the time, “with some searching, they will most likely remain accessible indefinitely.”

Warner, in his letter to Kahn, wrote that volunteers from the Coalition for a Safer Web have on Andy Parker’s behalf reported videos of the shootings and requested repeatedly that the videos be removed.

“Disturbingly, only some of the flagged videos have been removed, with many still viewable on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram,” the senator wrote. “While Meta has responded that it removed certain videos from Facebook and Instagram, there are still clear violations of their Terms of Service present on their platforms, with videos of Alison Parker’s murder, filmed by the perpetrator, still accessible on Instagram.

“While YouTube appears to have more thoroughly removed content of Alison Parker’s murder filmed by the perpetrator, content containing disturbing footage of the moment of attack is widespread. Through the continued hosting of videos showing the heinous attack on Alison Parker and Adam Ward and other violence, these platforms fail to provide users with an experience free of harmful content despite claiming to do so.”

Communications representatives for Meta and Google did not return emails asking for comment on Thursday.

Andy Parker said he hopes that the FTC will take action, but he believes the only real solution lies within changes to or revocation of Section 230, a portion of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Section 230 holds online platforms immune from liability for third-party content.

“These companies, Facebook and Google, they monetize violent content, and it’s just wrong,” he said. “And that’s why I’ve pursued this as long as I have and will keep pursuing it, because I can’t stand for that. I can’t let them get away with it. … It’s clearly a detriment to society. Kids watch this stuff.”

Tad Dickens is technology reporter for Cardinal News. He previously worked for the Bristol Herald Courier...