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At around midnight (MT) on July 20th, 2012, a masked gunman opened fire during the premier screening of the 2012 superhero film The Dark Knight Rises in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. According to multiple witness accounts on the scene, the shooter used gas or smoke-emitting canisters to distract the audience before opening fire with a semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun and a handgun. The attack killed 12 moviegoers and injured 59 people and the gunman was immediately apprehended after the police arrived on the scene. The shooter was later identified as a 24 year old James Holmes.
The first Reddit post about the shooting was submitted to the News subreddit at 7:09 AM UTC. Original poster Kilo__ updated the post in real time with breaking news updates as they came in. Less than an hour later, thread was submitted to /r/AskReddit at 8:07 AM UTC by Redditor Peener13. The post stated that shooting began during a gunfight scene on screen and asked other Redditors for “an army of kitten photos.” In the comments of this post, Redditor integ3r began chronicling the events with minute-to-minute updates. At 11:57 AM UTC, Redditor quepasacontigo posted a comment stating that they lived across the street from the suspect and began posting photos of the police activity happening outside.
A third Reddit thread from the event was posted at 11:55 AM UTC by themurderator, who revealed that he was one of the wounded and posted photos of himself in treatment at the hospital, including a shot of his t-shirt with a bullet hole. The images, hosted by the image sharing service Imgur, had received more than 54 million views by July 24th. The Reddit response to the tragedy was chronicled by Daily Dot and TIME Techland on July 21st.
Redditor integ3r, who later revealed himself as an 18-year-old Morgan Jones, began compiling updates on the situation around 1:27 AM MDT in Peener13’s /r/AskReddit thread. Worried for his friends in city, he collected notes from traditional news websites, social media feeds and a police scanner, as well as from the local news station’s Facebook page. After his initial comment reached the character length limit, Jones began compiling a master timeline of events in the News subreddit, spanning across 9 threads. His reporting style and speed was featured on Buzzfeed, NBC Dallas-Fort Worth and the City Star.
On Twitter, the hashtag #theatershooting and similar tag #theatreshooting were used not only by news media and journalists, but by families and friends of the victims who were trying to reach out to people at the scene. After the family of Alex Sullivan, who was supposed to be celebrating his 27th birthday on the 20th, was seen handing out flyers outside of the scene, others used the hashtag to try to get in touch with him, an active Twitter user. It was later revealed he was one of the people who passed away in the theater.
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The first confirmed victim, Jessica Ghawi, was known on Twitter as @JessRedfield. A month prior to this, she just missed bearing witness to another shooting at the Eaton Center in Toronto. She wrote about the experience on her blog, where she recounts having an odd feeling that made her go outside three minutes before the shooting occurred.
Hours after the news broke, one of the survivors and firsthand witnesses Chris Ramos posted a photograph of the movie ticket stub for the 12:05 am screening of the Batman film. As of July 24th, Ramos’ status update has received more than 54,000 likes and 2,000 shares.
Tonight that was supposed to be a great night turned into a horrible nightmare. I saw that shadow of evil and literally had blood of an innocent man on my hands. I am so lucky to be alive with my sister and friends. I’ll never forget this night and the many people that were there with me.
In addition, numerous Facebook pages relating to the incident were launched, including memorial pages for the victims as well as petitions to bring the death penalty to the suspect James Holmes. As of July 24th, the largest memorial page “Prayers For Shooting Victims and Those Involved in Shooting Aurora, Colorado” has more than 544 members and the largest justice-seeking petition page “Death Penalty for James Holmes (Colorado Killer)” has more than 1,700 members.
Human Blockade Against Westboro Baptist Church
On July 22nd, a prayer vigil event in remembrance of the victims was held at the Aurora Municipal Center, where more than 10,000 people gathered to honor the victims of the tragic shooting, according to various news reports. Among those planning to attend the event were members of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), who have become notorious for their extreme ideologies against homosexuality and its unusual protest activities such as picketing funerals of American servicemen. In anticipating the WBC protesters at the vigil, Facebook user Debra Quintana launched a counter-event page titled “Block Westboro Baptist Church from protesting the Aurora, Co Memorial” which accrued more than 2,000 RSVPs within several hours. The Facebook page was also linked in a call-to-action post about forming a human wall to keep WBC protesters away from the vigil event, which reached the site’s frontpage with more than 32,000 upvotes and generated more than 5,400 comments.
However, there were conflicting reports regarding the presence of WBC members at the event. While one of the church members Margie Phelps announced their arrival and posted pictures of picketers from the scene via Twitter, many of those who attended the event stated that they did not see members of the Church.
— sʇǝʌǝ pɹɐıu (@WBCSteve) July 22, 2012
On the following day of July 23rd, the photographs tweeted by WBC member Phelps were debunked as photoshopped, when Facebook user Justin Lawson posted a side-by-side comparison of Phelps’ picture of WBC picketers and another photograph from an identical angle taken by Reuters photographer.
Suspect: James Holmes
After the name of the suspect was released, reporters at ABC News, the New York Times and Mashable, among others, began seeking out his online presence. No social media profiles were initially linked to Holmes, a 24-year-old Neuroscience PhD candidate. False associations began popping up, for example a photoshopped 9gag post which appeared to have been made by the shooter began circulating on Twitter. Later that day, a spokesperson from 9gag stated there was no evidence of the post ever being on their site.
Social Networking Profiles
A suspected profile on the dating site Adult Friend Finder was speculated to have belonged to Holmes. Created on July 5th, the profile had three photos of a young man with red hair and a tag line that read “Will you visit me in prison?” A comparison photo (shown below) was shared on Reddit with a link to his profile. The photos, along with a screenshot of the profile, were later posted on TMZ, where they claimed law enforcement was investigating the profile’s authenticity. The following day, representatives from Adult Friend Finder confirmed Holmes’ home address matched and the IP address used to create and log into the profile came from Aurora.
On July 23rd, Holmes made his first public appearance at a court hearing, dressed in inmate clothes and visibly dyed red hair. Holmes, who has has been in detainment on suspicion of first-degree murder as well as pending counts of aggravated results and weapons violations, didn’t say a word and showed signs of fatigue and confusion at times, fueling further speculations about his mental state in the news media.
Meanwhile, others who saw the photographs from his court appearance began making doppleganger comparisons to The Simpsons character Sideshow Bob and The Muppets character Beaker. On July 30th, 2012, Holmes made another court appearance during which he was formally charged on 24 counts of first-degree murder, 116 counts of attempted murder, possession of explosive devices and inciting violence.
False News Reports
Shortly after his first court appearance, various news reports detailing Holmes’ strange behaviors in jail began circulating across major U.S. news sites and blogs, including one about Holmes allegedly spitting at jail officers and another report suggesting Holmes’ ties with The Tea Party. Both stories came amidst the widespread speculations that Holmes is mentally unstable and they were subsequently retracted as false reports. Around the same time, another story surfaced on New York Daily News and Huffington Post about a conversation between Holmes and a correctional officer, during which the 24 year old suspect reportedly asked the guard how the Batman: Dark Knight Rises ends. According to one of the guards, Holmes’ odd and remorseless behaviors came off as “trying real hard to act crazy.”
On July 31st, 2012, the viral content site BuzzFeed published a post titled “A Guide to the Dark World of James Holmes Internet Fandom”, which exposed an online community of James Holmes fans that referred to themselves as “Holmies.” The post highlighted several examples of artwork, letters and Tumblr posts dedicated to the suspected shooter. The same day, Gawker writer Adrian Chen published a post titled “Why James Holmes Has Fans on the Internet”, which speculated that the fandom was fueled by the negative attention it was receiving. Posts related to James Holmes fandom can be found under the tags “#holmies” and “10675” on Tumblr.
Various illustrations of Holmes have been created by fans, many of which have been published on the microblogging site Tumblr. On July 29th, Tumblr user thefuckitistoyou published a drawing of Holmes with the caption “Remember Holmies, to love and tolerate ’cause haters inevitably gonna hate!” (shown below, left). On July 30th, Tumblr user crylea posted an illustration of James Holmes embracing an object with the caption “Hugs 4 Holmies” (shown below, middle). The Tumblr blog TheJamesHolmies often features Holmes-related fan art (shown below, right), but claims it is not a blog glorifying James Holmes.
Fashion Symbols: Plaids / Slurpee
After a video of James Holmes giving a presentation at Science Camp when he was 18 surfaced, Tumblr users latched on to the host’s statement that Holmed wanted to own a Slurpee machine. As early as July 26th, 2012, people began posting photos of Slurpee machines on Tumblr with captions dedicating them to Holmes. On July 30th, several of these fans found a video titled “Slurpee Rap” on YouTube, uploaded on October 22nd, 2011 by the independent artist Ginger Snaps. Though the song is unrelated to the Aurora incident, Holmes fans used it as a way to connect with each other.
Fans also latched on to plaid shirts after the initial police audio noted that the shooter was wearing a blue and white plaid shirt. The Tumblr blog JimbosPlaidShirt was created on June 28th suggesting that people connect with each other by wearing plaid on Wednesdays. Several Tumblr users began posting photos of themselves in plaid, sometimes also with a Slurpee.
As early as July 20th, 2012, some Twitter users were noting that they found Holmes attractive or flat-out stating they had crushes on him. These tweets were covered by the New York Daily News, the Daily Mail and PolicyMic. Several Tumblr blogs including FreeHolmes and Dub-Me-Lovely (shown below) began including his jail mailing address so fans could mail him letters. Additionally, tinychat transcripts were posted to Tumblr where Holmies meditated on what they would say to him and how they wish they could have found him online previous to the shooting and befriended him.
Reddit – i am one of the 50 wounded in the aurora theatre shooting. here are a few photos of my very lucky but nonethless terrifying brush with death. my thoughts go out to those less fortunate than me. | Graphic photos
Reddit – So the Westboro baptist church is planning on picketing the Memorial for the victims of the Aurora shooting tomorrow. Who is coming with me to make a giant wall of people that will keep them from getting anywhere near it?
New York Daily News – Aurora shooting suspect James Holmes ‘hot,’ some Twitter users say