November 7, 2007 2:20 PM PST
Perspective: In Finland shooting, fallout for YouTube?See all Perspectives
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Predictably, some media outlets are already producing stories that imply Google's YouTube is a scary place where hateful polemics can be broadcast, unmolested by more thoughtful minds.
That's terribly unfair. What people should remember is that YouTube did not glorify the teenage gunman who went on the killing spree in Finland early Tuesday morning. Nor did the world's largest and most influential video-sharing site help him spread his angry message. Nonetheless, in the wake of yet another senseless shooting on a school campus, people will be looking for scapegoats.
The alleged shooter, 18, posted a video called "Jokela High School Massacre" to YouTube shortly before opening fire on classmates at Jokela High School in Tuusula, located about 30 miles north of Finland's capital Helsinki, according to a report in Britain's The Telegraph. Eight students and the school's principal were killed, according to the publication. The young gunman shot himself, and later died from the injuries.
"Our hearts go out to the families who have lost loved ones in this tragedy," said Jaime Schopflin, a YouTube spokeswoman. "We have removed the video and disabled the user's account."
The video was posted under the shooter's YouTube username, Sturmgeist89. It showed a photo of what is believed to be Jokela High School, the Telegraph reported. The photo dissolves to reveal a picture of a man pointing at the camera with a gun. YouTube has removed the video and others posted under Sturmgeist89, and has suspended the account, which was believed to belong to the gunman. Sturmgeist means "storm spirit" in German, according to Britain-based publication Metro.
Should YouTube have done something to stop this? Was the company responsible for sounding alarms? Or does a public forum like YouTube embolden disturbed people to seize the limelight through violent action?
Blaming YouTube in such a situation would be equivalent to holding the U.S. Postal Service responsible for delivering the messages sent by the Zodiac Killer, a serial killer believed to have murdered at least five people in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s and 1970s. The Zodiac sent taunting letters to authorities and local newspapers bragging about the killings, and threatening to do more. He was never caught.
The list of self-glorifying killers, pre-YouTube, goes on, of course. Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, sent long, antitechnology rants to newspapers. He even got two publications to print one of them, though it was in an effort on their part to avoid further bloodshed.
For a teenager today, posting a YouTube video is like sending a letter to the local newspaper. Want to get your message out, no matter how terrible it is? You don't need to mail a letter, just post a video.
So what's YouTube's role? YouTube is a tool anyone can use, not an edited newspaper. It's policed by the community that uses it. If something is indeed offensive, it can be removed. Yes, it's a change from the old days, when a few people controlled who gets to speak at the bully pulpit. This is the democratization of information. No one gets to control who gets to say what anymore.
According to the Metro, many of the same materials that the alleged gunman posted at YouTube were also up on his own Web site. In fact, you could argue the evidence that there was something wrong with this young man was there for everyone to see. Apparently, the right people didn't notice.
But should YouTube be dragged into the muck of a killer just because he posted some videos there? No way.
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment.
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