Tweeting About an Execution: Why Not?

The attorney general of the state of Utah, Mark Shurtleff, posted a tweet on Friday morning that triggered a storm of outrage, which stretched through the weekend and continues today. What did he say? That he had given the order to state officials to proceed with the firing-squad execution of convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner. This sparked a flurry of criticism of Shurtleff, accusing him of using a trivial method to communicate an important event. But should anyone really be surprised or outraged? By now, Twitter has become a crucial news delivery system, an emergency broadcast network and a key tool for communicating all kinds of important information. Why should a state execution suddenly be off limits?

Shortly after Shurtleff’s tweet, certain Twitter users said that it was “grotesque” to announce such a thing on the social networking service, and criticized what they called “death by Twitter.” Outrage continued to flow through the day, using the hashtag #twttrexecution. One user referred to the attorney-general’s tweet as “the dumbest, most disgusting use of Twitter ever.” Much of the outrage appeared to be based on the view that Twitter is a frivolous social tool, and the execution of a human being is an important event that deserves more gravitas. But why is the issuing of a press release by the AG’s office, or a press conference held before TV cameras at a prison, any more civilized or humane than a tweet?

The reality is that Twitter is a communications tool, period. Yes, many people use it to post what they are having for lunch or their thoughts about the weather, but others are using it to track survivor reports in Haiti or inform the world about riots in Iran and elsewhere. Why is it OK for Twitter users to change their locations to Iran, and re-tweet news about the deaths of protesters, but not OK for a state official to post news about a criminal proceeding? There may be a debate over whether capital punishment is appropriate or not, but that has little to do with Twitter.

For his part, Shurtleff later said that he believes in an informed public, and said that as an elected official, “I use social media to communicate directly with people.” Regardless of what we think of Utah executing criminals, the AG is right — Twitter is a method of communication, just like the telephone or email. In other words, it is simply a tool. Whether we like what’s being communicated over it has nothing to do with the medium itself.

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