A recently published study by Yardley and Wilson (2014) investigated homicides related to Facebook use. The researcher analysed over 1000 cases of homicides in which Facebook was mentioned in the media reporting of the case; and they identified six types of perpetrator. Listed in order of prevalence, the perpetrator types are briefly described below:
- The reactor is the perpetrator who reacts to a piece or news or information that they see on the platform, for example committing homicide due to anger or jealousy over an online comment. The reactor was the most common type of perpetrator.
- The informer is the perpetrator who uses the social media platform to announce their plans prior to the homicide or talks about their actions following the act. The informer was the second most common type of perpetrator.
- The antagonist was the third most common type or perpetrator; referring to the perpetrator who is antagonised by, or antagonises, other users and the ensuing online hostile exchanges lead to offline violence and homicide.
- The fantasist is the perpetrator who uses Facebook to indulge in a fantasy. The line between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly blurred and the fantasist may commit homicide as a way to continue or live out the fantasy and/or to prevent others discovering their deception, i.e., that the things they portray on social media are not real.
- The predator uses a fake Facebook profile to lure victims to meet them offline.
- The imposter also uses a fake profile but this time they use the online identity of someone else, perhaps someone known to the victim to gain information about them or alternatively posing as the victim after the homicide in order to conceal their death.
Whilst this is very interesting, perhaps the most interesting and important part of the paper may lie within the researchers’ opinions on whether the term ‘Facebook Murder’ should be used. This is a term that has originated within the media and is often used in a manner that suggests that Facebook, or more widely social media, has introduced a new type of homicide. Whilst homicides relating to Facebook use are – of course – shocking, they are also not distinctly different from other homicides. The researchers did not find anything to suggest that nature of Facebook-related homicides differ from general homicides. Whilst some differences were found in victim demographics with victims typically being younger than the average for homicides and women being overrepresented, it is quite possible that this is mainly due to the demographics of social media users. One of the concerns around labelling homicides as ‘Facebook Murders’ is that this label could take some of perceived the agency away from the perpetrator by almost implying that Facebook was the main reason why the murder took place, rather than leaving that responsibility with the perpetrator.
I strongly support the view that behaviours in the social media world are not distinct from the offline world. Unfortunately today’s media often reports social media-related behaviours and crimes as something completely new, as if social media is creating a whole new realm of human behaviours never seen before. However this is disputed by the current study, previous research, and my own work into social media use and negative health behaviours such as eating disorders and self-harm.
The online environment does not create new risks and behaviours, it merely provides a new mechanism through which those behaviours can take place and it is this interaction between pre-existing behaviours and the wide-spread adoption of social media that we should seek to understand.
Rather than labelling behaviours with sensationalist titles such as ‘Facebook Murder’ we should aim to maintain perspective, drawing on links to existing research from the offline environment and aiming to identify how social media interacts with and impacts upon users’ behaviours.