Culture

Who Should We Hold Responsible for Astroworld?: The Dangers of Visual Digital Media

Omar Vega/FilmMagic

”The show must go on” is a common mantra among performers, but no one ever expects it to have deadly consequences.

Travis Scott headlined the sold-out Astroworld concert in Houston, taking place on November 5th and 6th, claimed lives with hundreds more injured. The news immediately swept social media, with concert attendees sharing videos from the concert as well as their own experiences. Speaking to two Astroworld attendees, Matt Bradley and Teja Desai, I heard about their experiences firsthand.

“Immediately once [Travis] came on stage the entire crowd was forced forward,” said Bradley, 20, “I say forced because no one had control of their body. In a crowd of that magnitude, you are at the mercy of the crowd.”

The hordes of people pushing to get closer to the performer created an inescapable, crushing atmosphere. The expected attendance at the concert was increased from 2018, selling 50,000 tickets. According to LiveNation, NRG Park, the outdoor venue where Astroworld was held, could have held up to 200,000 people. An official from the Houston fire department confirmed LiveNation’s statement that there is no occupancy permit for an outdoor event. However, despite official laws, a major factor in the danger of the crowd was the size. Desai, 20, remembers barely being able to see Travis, but not being able to see the end of the crowd.

Recalling her own experience at the event, Desai, like most of the concertgoers, was initially in disbelief at the severity of the situation. People were collapsing and suffocating, unconscious bodies were being lifted and surfed through the crowd. “[I remember] the guy next to me told me ‘they’re dying.’ When he said that, I thought. . . maybe people had drank too much. Maybe ten minutes later six security guards came in right next to us. . .I couldn’t really see what was happening. . .I still thought that they were just passed out [because of dehydration] . . . but then the same guy [standing next to me] told me that they were getting CPR. That was really when I realized that he was not being metaphorical. Those people really were dying.”

“We were in the pile of people with everyone’s legs intertwined with others to the point where I thought my leg was going to snap,” Bradley said. “There were at least three to four layers of bodies under me which is absolutely terrifying to think about.”

Videos have circulated around the internet of Travis seemingly watching fans collapse and being carried out of the sea of people, as he watches and continues to perform.

One particular video, captured from the Apple Music Stream of the show, shows the performer seemingly taking note of the ambulance but not drawing any attention to the emergency. At the same time, he waves off two men trying to capture his attention. Another video of the interaction, captured at 9:35pm via TikTok, shows the two men climbing ladders, screaming for Travis to stop the show “because people are dying;” Travis yells back “Who asked me to stop? Who asked me to stop?! Y’all know what y’all came to do, let’s go!”

Two other men approach Travis on stage, but he waves them away and turns to address the audience, encouraging the crowd to put “two hands in the sky” and “make the ground shake.”

Travis ended up concluding his show about 30 minutes earlier than planned, although there is no evidence that the dangerous crowd was the reason behind his shorter set. 

Although these videos seem to be enough evidence to denounce Travis, they only tell part of the story. One of the most viral videos from Astroworld, circulated widely on Twitter, shows Travis humming while looking down at a body being carried out of the crowd. Although, at first, this seems like clear evidence against him, a firsthand account from Bradley described the video as “very misleading.” In actuality, Travis stopped “mid-song” upon seeing a member of the crowd pass out. The full video shows Travis up on an elevated surface, raising his hand to say “hold, hold, hold. . .we need somebody to help them, somebody’s passed out right here” and instructing the audience to “hold on, wait, don’t touch them. Everybody back up.” He then asked security to come to the individual’s aid.

“Other than that he did not acknowledge anything happening,” Bradley continued, “it is extremely hard to see people passing out in a crowd that large on top of the pyrotechnics and productions lights that were happening on stage.” Travis’s ability to fully process the danger of the crowd was also likely impaired by the size of the crowd and the fact that his set took place at night. 

After the concert, Travis released a statement on Twitter: “I’m absolutely devastated by what took place last night. My prayers go out to the families and all those impacted by what happened at Astroworld Festival. Houston PD has my total support as they continue to look into the tragic loss of life.”

He also took to his Instagram to address the situation: “I just want to send out prayers to the ones that was [sic] lost last night. . .My fans really mean the world to me. I always just really want to leave them with a positive experience, and anytime I can make out, you know, anything that’s going on, you know, I’ll stop the show and, you know, help them get the help they need. . .I mean I’m honestly just devastated. I could’ve never imagined anything like this happening.”

Both his Twitter and Instagram apology received extreme backlash, as many people thought his tone and wording were insincere. In fact, his apology gathered so much attention that his black and white Instagram story video quickly exploded into an internet meme criticizing his disingenuousness. 

Many legal experts have debated whether Travis will be liable for not stopping the show. At least 14 civil lawsuits have already been filed against Live Nation Entertainment Inc. or the company’s subsidiary, 10 of which name Scott as a defendant. C.J. Baker, a Texas injury attorney, projects that the concert’s organizers and promoters will be most likely to face liability as they were responsible for security. 

In hindsight, a crowd of that magnitude seems irresponsible for security to approve, especially given the performer’s history of riling up crowds. In 2017, he pleaded guilty to reckless conduct at Lollapalooza and inciting a riot at a concert in Bentonville, Arkansas where Scott allegedly encouraged fans to bypass security protocols and rush toward the stages.

The lawsuits filed after Astroworld generally claim that “Live Nation acted negligently by failing to create and enforce proper safety protocols, failing to provide adequate security and failing to maintain proper crowd control.” 

To pursue criminal charges, there would have to be grounds of either Scott or the organizers failing to stop the show even after they were informed that people were being injured or killed. Neama Rahmani, the president and a cofounder of personal-injury firm West Coast Trial Lawyers, said there would have to be a degree of intention or, at the very least, “gross level of negligence.” 

When such a tragic event occurs, people look for someone to blame. Though the public is desperate for a scapegoat, it is impossible to draw an accurate conclusion on the situation through citizen videos. In fact, the tragedy of Astroworld only highlights the complicated divergence from traditional media. With social media being Generation Z’s primary source of communication, the conversation surrounding Astroworld has been largely online, with every citizen video and opinion accepted as fact. While these videos seem to present raw reality, short clips can be easily skewed to tell a different story. Social media’s power to control the narrative has become dangerous. Each first-hand account of the concert had a different experience, and while this should not be used to discount the tragedy, it casts doubt that visuals shared through digital media tell the whole story. 

Social media is a powerful tool: one viral video can easily influence a widespread public opinion. Putting this lesson into context, how do the dangers of digital media play a role in other serious events? In 2019, a video of a teenage boy and Native American interacting in the Lincoln Memorial protest emerged, with the boy, sporting a Make America Great Again hat, grinning at the Indigenous man beating his drum. The video went viral, resulting in several news publications writing stories about the interaction. A common theme of the articles was discussing the apparent disrespect the boy, Nicholas Sandmann, was demonstrating to the Native American activist, Nathan Phillips. However, the question of whether the camera can capture truth was quickly realized when the Sandmanns sued The Washington Post, CNN, and The New York Times, among others, for defamation. Although it is fully possible Sandmann was trying to cause conflict, that conclusion cannot be inferred from a four minute video. 

Clearly, the public is not the only party guilty of assuming digital media is an infallible source, as major news publications have made similar mistakes. The overarching lesson in this new digital age is the impossibility of using every citizen video as a reliable source. There are hundreds of other examples of citizen videos being widely circulated but taken completely out of context. While Travis is not free from responsibility, he certainly should not be the only one to blame — especially if the primary evidence against him has been stockpiled via social media.

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