The news when it broke overnight was horrific, a combination of technology and violence more appalling than any episode of Black Mirror.
While details are still scarce, it appears that over the weekend, a young man murdered a teenager with whom he was obsessed with and posted the gruesome aftermath of his alleged crime to Instagram.
Local newspapers report that police were called to the scene of a homicide in similar circumstances to those that appear to have been posted on Instagram, though the names of the man and woman involved have not been released. Utica Police did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication, but told other media outlets that they were aware of social media postings involving the alleged perpetrator and purported victim and unspecified injuries, but could not confirm the veracity of the photographs.
Word – and images, including one appearing to show the victim’s throat slashed – spread quickly online. Users of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube woke up this morning to warnings to block keywords including the alleged perpetrator’s username, for fear that the images would spread onto their timelines. Such is the way news now works on the internet.
The alleged killer, who reportedly tried to take his own life but was apprehended by police in Utica, New York around 7am local time on Sunday, shared various images on his Instagram story (a semi-permanent method of uploading pictures and video to share with users) in the run-up to the incident. He posted a screenshot of the film Fight Club, along with a quote from the film: “This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.” He followed that with an image taken from behind the steering wheel of a moving car, captioned “Here comes Hell. It’s a redemption, right?”. The third image – which Instagram’s algorithms identified as sensitive content, requiring users to agree to see it – is a bloody photograph of a body, thought to be that of his victim.
At the same time, more violent images were posted to a Discord – an online forum accessed through a smartphone app – that both the alleged attacker and the victim used, and on 4chan, an anonymous message board on which users post extremist theories and share gory images for fun. In a disturbing illustration of the incentives involved in gaining a following online, other Instagram users began commenting on past photographs of both the people involved in the incident, claiming they had uncensored footage of the attack that they would share in exchange for being followed – a practice called “gaining clout” .
Murderers have always existed in society, but their ability to amplify their crimes using social media is new. Social media platforms cannot be held responsible for the actions of someone hellbent on causing serious harm to another person – nor can they be held responsible for that person choosing to broadcast the aftermath of their crime using their platforms. But they can do something to try to halt the spread of the information. And they must.
For much of the morning, the Instagram profile of the person believed to be responsible remained online – though the story in which he appears to document in real time the killing of a teenager was no longer accessible. In a statement, Instagram said it had removed content from a named profile for violating its policies, and later removed the profile altogether.
News of the incident travelled around the world, alongside horrifying images of violence, before social networks took it down. A live video stream celebrating the alleged attacker’s actions, including showing images purportedly from the scene, was available on YouTube for the best part of an hour before being removed for violating YouTube policy on violent or graphic content. Groups on Facebook were celebrating the crime and sharing gruesome images at an alarming rate without being taken down. A search of the usernames of any of those apparently involved in the incident on Twitter will throw up the same unpalatable content.
Reporters and ordinary users appear to be able find and raise awareness of this content faster than the major technology companies themselves, despite the armies of moderators they employ specifically to remove it.
This has been an issue for nearly five years, since the fatal shooting of the Virginia journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward in 2015 by ex-colleague Vester Flanagan. Flanagan broadcast the murders live on Facebook and others shared them via Twitter and other social networks. More recently, graphic video footage of shootings at two mosques in Christchurch this March spread widely before being taken offline.
It’s an issue of which no politician can credibly claim to be unaware. When I spoke to Damian Collins, the head of the Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee last month, he highlighted the social networks’ response to the Christchurch shootings as inadequate. With every subsequent incident that goes unchecked by social networks, the argument in favour of regulation becomes stronger.