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His journalist daughter was killed. Now he wants to ‘fix’ big tech in Congress | Virginia

Andy Parker and his wife, Barbara, listen as then Virginia governor Terry McAulliffe announces a compromise on a set of gun bills at the Capitol in 2016.

Andy Parker has never watched the video of his daughter’s murder. But anyone with an internet connection can find it, view it and share it.

In the years since Alison Parker, a 24-year-old TV journalist in Roanoke, Virginia, was shot and killed during a live broadcast in 2015, her father has made it his mission to remove the footage from the social media platforms where it continues to resurface even after being taken down.

Volunteers help him flag the content to YouTube and Facebook. He has appealed to the companies directly, testified before the Senate, even filed complaints with federal regulators, alleging the platforms were violating their own terms of service by hosting the videos.

After years of pleading his case as a grief-stricken father, Parker now believes a seat in Congress may be his best recourse. “I always wanted to honor her life with action,” Parker said in a recent interview by Zoom, a framed photo of his daughter on a shelf behind him. “I think that is what has compelled me to do this.”

He continued: “I had fought this battle as a private citizen as long as I could. The only way to fix it is through Congressional action. That’s it.”

Parker is seeking the Democratic nomination in Virginia’s newly redrawn fifth Congressional district, now a thumbprint-shaped expanse stretching from the center of the state to its border with North Carolina.

The district is currently represented by congressman Bob Good, a staunch conservative who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election and has promoted Donald Trump’s “big lie” that widespread fraud cost him the presidency.

In a video announcing his candidacy, Parker said he was running “to make the internet safer for kids and for families”.

The reel includes images of Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, while arguing that the economy is tilted against middle-class Americans. “In America today, we’ve got an economy that makes tech billionaires rich enough to go to space, while young people can’t afford to go to college,” he says in the ad.

Andy Parker and his wife, Barbara, listen as then Virginia governor Terry McAulliffe announces a compromise on a set of gun bills at the Capitol in 2016.
Andy Parker and his wife, Barbara, listen as then Virginia governor Terry McAulliffe announces a compromise on a set of gun bills at the Capitol in 2016. Photograph: Steve Helber/AP

Parker is hopeful he can appeal to a wide cross-section of voters with a unifying message and a platform centered on reforming big tech, a cause that has galvanized lawmakers in both parties.

“Republicans, they want their kids to be safe online, too,” he said. “If I could get to Congress”, he added, “I would champion this cause, not just for me, but for all these people who have been harmed.”

Alison Parker’s boyfriend, Chris Hurst, also channeled his grief into political activism, winning a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates after campaigning as a gun-safety advocate. He served two terms before losing his re-election in a Republican wave last November.

Before he was “Alison’s dad”, Andy Parker was a Texas transplant pursuing an acting career in New York. A career change ultimately brought Parker to southern Virginia, where he settled with his wife and children, Alison and Drew, and became involved in local politics. He was working as a talent recruiter for the banking industry when Alison was killed.

“If you’ve heard of me,” Parker says in his campaign video, “it’s probably because of what happened on August 26th, 2015.”

Alison Parker was mid-interview when she was fatally shot in 2015.
Alison Parker was mid-interview when she was fatally shot in 2015. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

On that day, Alison Parker, an on-air journalist with WDBJ-TV, was fatally shot by a former co-worker while conducting an on-air interview near Roanoke. Cameraman Adam Ward, 27, was also killed. The interview subject, Vicki Gardner, survived, and the gunman, who recorded the shooting and uploaded it to his social media accounts, killed himself.

Seemingly overnight, Andy Parker became one of the most prominent advocates of gun-control in Virginia, a state with a tragic history of mass shootings and home to the NRA headquarters.

For years, Parker lobbied the state legislature to enact gun-safety legislation, sometimes aggressively targeting Republican opponents of those efforts. Activists celebrated a major victory in 2020, when the state’s then-governor, Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed into law a suite of new gun restrictions that had become a legislative priority in the aftermath of a mass shooting at a municipal building in Virginia Beach that left 12 people dead.

A day before Parker spoke to the Guardian, two officers were fatally shot at Bridgewater College in Virginia, just a 10-minute drive from the university where his daughter attended journalism school.

“Every mass shooting, it’s just like a gut punch,” he said. “But this one was particularly tough because these are friends. This was close. We have a pandemic of gun violence along with the Covid pandemic. It’s nuts and it’s got to stop.”

More recently, Parker has trained his ire on big tech. But he said he hasn’t abandoned his gun-control activism. The issues, he said, go “hand in hand”.

Supporting gun-control legislation, he said, made him a target of online trolls and conspiracy theorists claiming his daughter’s killing was faked as part of a plot to seize their firearms. Some of the attacks used edited or doctored footage of her murder.

“At one point there were ads running on Alison’s murder,” he said. “How disgusting is that?”

He pointed to the revelations provided by the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen as proof that tech companies could do more to police the misinformation and hate that proliferate on their platforms.

“They have the ability to do it. They have the algorithms. They have the AI to do it,” he said. “But they don’t because they profit from it. They want people to stay engaged and to stay on the site. That’s how they make money.”

Parker said he supports some of the bipartisan proposals to reign in big tech. But he believes more needs to be done to hold them accountable. He has called for reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has largely shielded social media platforms from legal liability for content generated by its users.

“For all the great things that Facebook and Google have done, bringing people together, they’re also in the process of tearing this country apart,” he said.

He also hopes to demystify the process for users by making platforms and regulators like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) more responsive. If elected, Parker said one of the first things he would do in Congress is push for a hearing with the FTC chair to ask: “What are you doing? You know, these companies are violating their own terms of service, and you’re saying nothing.”

Parker filed complaints with the FTC against YouTube and Facebook. But the process has been opaque and disillusioning, he said.

Parker, who must first win the Democratic nomination, knows he faces an uphill battle in a district rated safely Republican by political prognosticators. Democrats face historical headwinds this cycle, after a crushing defeat in the Virginia governor’s race last year.

But Parker said battles against the NRA and big tech have steeled him for an underdog campaign. He believes there’s enough “buyer’s remorse” in the district to make the race competitive.

Days after Good was sworn in, he voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The congressman’s embrace of falsehoods and misinformation about the 2020 election and the coronavirus, Parker argued, have contributed to the toxic political environment that had gridlocked Washington.

“He is the Marjorie Taylor Green of Virginia and his antics are wearing thin on people,” he said.

Good’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

When Parker announced his candidacy last month, he braced for the onslaught of trolls and online abuse. But so far, he said the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Candidates for congressional office don’t have running mates, but I do,” Parker said, his voice catching. “And she will be with me every step of the way.”