Why terrifying real-time shooting texts go viral

Immediate on-the-scene reporting from the media following a shooting at a school or other public place is what we’ve come to expect, thanks to our 24/7 news cycle. But there’s another element that’s also become the norm: the posting of harrowing text messages, on social media, from witnesses or even about-to-be victims who are sending desperately terrified messages from the scene of the in-progress crime.

“Mom answer!!! Mom answer!!!” a child wrote in one of the latest such texts, shared on Twitter by Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which works closely with the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety. “Gun violence is everywhere in America — all day long,” Watts wrote, sharing the texts that her friend had received after her son and husband saw a man being shot outside of a 24 Hour Fitness.

“I’m almost there baby. Pulling in now,” the mom texted back. “They won’t let me in baby,” she later wrote. “They know I’m here. I talked to the officers.”

“Ok. Mom I’m so scared,” her son wrote. “I’m so sorry. I know baby,” the mom said. “Is daddy shot??? Why is he bloody?” The reply was heartbreaking: “He used his shirt to stop the bleeding. But the guy died.”

Terrifying, real-time texts from shootings that are shared on social media are compelling ways for people to feel close to — but far enough from — a tragedy. (GIF: Yahoo Lifestyle)
Terrifying, real-time texts from shootings that are shared on social media are compelling ways for people to feel close to — but far enough from — a tragedy. (GIF: Yahoo Lifestyle)

Other viral texts break down a shooting as it’s taking place. A text exchange between two sisters — Kaitlin Carbocci, 19, and her sister, Hannah, 17 — during the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., was later shared with CNN.

“Kaitlin I am not joking. They just shot through the walls. Someone in my class is injured,” Hannah wrote. “Call my mom and dad.” And later: “I’m so scared.”

Texts between brothers Sam and Matthew Zeif, who both attend Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, also went viral on Twitter. “Are you okay,” Sam texted his younger brother. “Hopefully. Just know, I love you,” Matthew replied. “You’re the best brother.” “We’re gonna get out of here I promise,” Sam replied.

Fellow student Sarah Crescitelli texted this message to both of her parents while hiding in a bathroom: “If I don’t make it I love you and appreciated everything you did for me.”

Such texts tend to go viral, as the emotional immediacy is the closest anyone can get without actually being there, in the moment, and that’s something that observers from afar are clearly looking for.

The texts hit a nerve with people because they’re so gut-wrenching and real, Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “They are highly emotional, and enable people to feel empathy and a connection to what the students were feeling at the time,” she says. Social media in particular is good for sharing these texts, Rutledge adds. “Removing the sense of mediation in connection is what social media does best,” she says. “It transports people into events and allows them to share the feelings more intensely.”

The messages are also stimulating to people and create a horror-story-type feeling — except they’re not made up, clinical psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. That can also make the experience more real. “They bring the reality of the dangers in the world into one’s life and right into your personal space,” Mayer says. “Therefore, it becomes even more frightening.”

The texts also allow people to experience the events vicariously, albeit from a safe distance, and can prompt feelings of gratitude and appreciation for the safety they do have, Rutledge says.

But these kinds of texts really resonate because they’re authentic and straight from the source. “They are real-time reporting of feelings and events,” Rutledge points out.

It’s not all voyeuristic, though. When people respond to these kinds of viral texts, it shows that they’ve become invested in the safety and well-being of people who had to experience the shooting. “This kind of caring for others is very positive, because we are relating at a very human level and not worrying about the more superficial things that keep us apart,” Rutledge says.

While people often feel helpless after a shooting, sharing these texts can help outsiders feel like they’re doing something to lend their support. “This can help with the feelings of terror that linger,” Rutledge says.

And, of course, engaging with these texts can help raise awareness that shootings can and do occur — and Rutledge says that spreading the word at least feels like it may help lower the odds that they’ll happen again in the future.

People often feel relief knowing that the people in the conversation are OK. As one commenter said in her Twitter response to Sam Zeif, one of the brothers in the Florida text exchange, “I’m so happy you and your brother both made it out okay, and sickened that we live in a country where this is an ever growing reality. Please take time for yourselves, rest, love each other, and heal. You deserve everything.”

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