Why do killers livestream their crimes?

Social media lets people broadcast their lives in real time – their kids’ first steps, their weddings… and even their crimes.

In April the internet witnessed, on multiple occasions, gruesome crime on full digital display. When the man now known as the Cleveland Killer used Facebook Live to stream himself shooting 74-year-old Robert Godwin Sr., law enforcement said the video “should not have been shared.”

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Facebook itself vowed to better monitor the content being shared to its platform to ensure that the world’s most inhumane crimes aren’t viewed widely within its online community.

Despite the response on all fronts, similar crimes have taken place at least two more times.

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David Wilson, professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, says the only thing that’s new about this phenomenon is the livestreaming feature.

It’s always been common for violent criminals and killers to seek fame and recognition for their actions. In the past, Wilson explains, these figures have left calling cards behind or would even go so far as to tip off the press themselves.

“Some people in the past would write letters to newspapers, they would leave clues, they would play cat and mouse with police,” explains Wilson.

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A clear example of this behaviour can be observed in one of the most mysterious criminal cases of the past century; the so-called Zodiac Killer.

While no one was definitively identified as the perpetrator, the Zodiac Killer claims to have killed 37 people —; five of which have been confirmed —; between 1968 and 1969, in North Carolina.

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Beginning in 1969, the Zodiac Killer began sending letters to Bay Area Newspapers taking credit for the killings and threatening to continue to take lives. In a letter to the San Francisco Examiner in 1969, the murderer identified themself as Zodiac for the first time, accompanied by the symbol of a circle with a cross drawn through it. The apparent killer’s final letter to the paper said: “Me – 37 and [San Francisco Police Department] – 0.”

Even the internationally-known Jack the Ripper got the name through a calling card: victims were always found in the same state —; with organs missing and the dismembered appearance of having been operated on, almost as if a doctor had done a surgical procedure. Jack the Ripper killed female prostitutes in London between 1881 and 1891.

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Another example can be found in the early 70s, when Dennis Raider, or the BTK Murderer, killed 10 people in Wichita, Kansas. He sent letters directly to police taunting them under a name that stood for ‘Bind, Torture, Kill.”

In the case of crimes streamed on Facebook Live, the motivations are much the same.

“The idea of the livestream is very much about the performance,” Wilson explains.

“The killer is very much telling a story about themselves. It’s about narcissism; their need to be in control. Their need to be centre stage, to validate their life by taking another life.”

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The three well-known cases of violent crimes that were livestreamed on Facebook in April bear little resemblance to each other besides their distribution method. The first of these livestreams took place on April 17, when the man now known as the Cleveland Killer fatally shot Robert Godwin Sr., and then threatened to kill 15 others.

The second livestream took place on April 25 and depicts a Thai man hanging is 11-month-old daughter. The third stream, which is also a Canadian case, was posted on April 26, and shows a violent attack on 19-year-old Serena McKay.

Neil Boyd, director of the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University, adds that the nature of social media also plays a factor in these cases. He explains that the “sharing” nature of social media has the potential to unearth individuals who don’t view their behaviour as abnormal.

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He explains that while committing a violent crime and livestreaming the act on social media seems like reprehensible behaviour to someone consuming this content, it may not seem so to someone posting it, who may not be in their right mind.

“I think it’s a reflection of social media,” said Boyd. “We know that people use Facebook to talk about themselves. This is a group of fairly anti-social people doing the same thing.”

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Boyd went on to explain that social media is about sharing your life with others, and garnering attention through the events that fill our days. It’s possible that this is what perpetrators who broadcast themselves are attempting to do, with less self-awareness than the average person.

“It’s abnormal in the sense that these people are engaging in acts that are pretty horrific, but they would be involved in this kind of act anyway,” said Boyd. “There’s probably an awareness that 95-99 per cent of the world doesn’t behave that way.”

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Whether in pursuit of fame or simply using social media to broadcast their lives, “they are trying to get attention,” says Boyd.

These events prompted Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to pledge during the network’s F8 developer conference that his company would do everything in its power to prevent similar acts from being posted to the social network in the future.

At the time, the only mechanism Facebook had for discovering these posts was the goodwill of users who reported them. Many times in the past month, the violent posts remained online until enough people had reported them to Facebook moderators. In the case of the Cleveland Killer, it was a few hours. In the case of 11-month old Jullaus Suvannin, it was a full day.

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By sharing and spreading the content, even with the best of intentions, we only give the perpetrator of these acts exactly what they want, he says.

“Livestreaming seems to be a way they can demonstrate their power,” Wilson says about the perpetrators.

He goes on to explain that a billion-user platform such as Facebook should do more to prevent crimes like these from being broadcasted on its platform.

“I think social media outlets need to be far more aware of this. Too often, these images are allowed to circulate for far too long. It shouldn’t be up to the public to bring these to the outlet’s attention,” says Wilson.

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In addition to preserving the integrity of the victims, Wilson says that reducing the circulation of these videos is crucial to prevent a horrific event that went viral from influencing another killer to use Facebook to copy this method.

Facebook acknowledged that the existing reporting mechanism wasn’t adequate when on May 3, the company announced that it would hire 3,000 workers to catch and remove streaming violence.

These events beg the public to consider not only the reasons behind why this content is being allowed to live on platforms for as long as it does, but why viewers sometimes share these posts rather than report them. Wilson says that the internet provides a new means for consuming these acts that may also desensitize viewers to their raw depravity.

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“The liv streaming engines are very much a pathological public space….As a culture, we seem to be drawn to trauma. The desire to consume these images seems to be something that is relatively recent,” says Wilson.

“When an audience viewed a public hanging, they saw up close and personal what death was actually like. When something is online, it’s a distance away. There’s a protective veil.”

He says that the distance the internet places between the viewer and the physical act is a new phenomenon. He also says however, that while posting crimes on social media has become more common, it’s still not relatively common in the grand scheme of homicide.

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In a study conducted by Wilson and his colleague Elizabeth Yardley in 2014, the two explored the phenomenon of the “Facebook crime.” The report, which was published in the Howard Journal, found that only 48 murder cases over the previous six years involved social media in some capacity. While that number may seem large, it’s put in perspective when compared to the almost 16,000 people that die by homicide in the United States every year.

“That’s why we have an opportunity now to take steps to prevent this from becoming more common,” Wilson says. How can we do this? By ensuring that videos featuring such content are taken down as soon as possible, experts say, and ideally not permitted to be shared in the first place.

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The viewing public also has a role to play in reducing this phenomenon, by way of refusing to share this content. If the individuals committing these acts don’t see predecessors becoming famous on social media, explains Wilson, there’s a chance they may be deterred. He himself refers to the killers by name as little as possible when writing about them in his research. He does however, reference the victim by name. They’re the ones that should be remembered, he says.

“Don’t give [the perpetrators] what they want,” says Wilson. He explains that instead of remembering the killers and giving them a place in history, we should remember the names Robert Godwin Sr., Jullaus Suvannin and Serena McKay.