The Making Of A “Facebook Murder”

People are actually killing other people for changing their relationship status

Illustration: Diana Quach
Aug 05, 2016 at 11:37 AM ET

Earlier this year, the friends and family of a 42-year-old Texas woman learned of her death via a Facebook post of her bloodied body. This is the “Black Mirror”-esque reality we live in, thanks to the easy self-publishing that social media affords. Among the baby pics and wedding pics and chain letters from your aunt, you might open up Facebook to find images of former high school acquaintances murdered by jilted lovers. Terrorists have been using it to broadcast the live shock and horror as they kill, while victims of police brutality are streaming their nightmarish ordeals.

And because all of life now plays out online, right to the grisly end, “Facebook Murders” are a thing. The term caught the attention of criminology expert Elizabeth Yardley, director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University in England.

“It struck me because much of the media reporting appeared to be placing the blame on social media and treating homicides in which it was involved as one-off events,” Yardley told Vocativ in an e-mail. “Whilst I feel that it wasn’t, I do think we should be looking at the wider media practices of homicide perpetrators. What are they doing with networked media more generally? How important is social media for their performance of self? Where are the opportunities to identify problems before homicides happen?”

After searching through news archives for articles referencing Facebook’s role in various murders occurring throughout the world from 2008 to 2013, Yardley noticed specific trends within the 48 cases where the site was reported to play a central role.

In most cases of Facebook murders, the victim and perpetrator already knew each other IRL. The killer’s anger at content posted by the victim was cited as partial motivation for more than a quarter of these murders. That makes sense, given that nearly 40 percent of these Facebook murder cases were perpetrated by a partner or former partner. The report mentioned an example where a killer was moved to action by seeing a former partner had updated their relationship status from “in a relationship” to “single.” Information leading to jealous rage tended to play a large role in domestic homicides.

The use of Facebook to support fictitious relationship fantasies tended to feature among murders involving newer intimate partner relationships, or even relationships that more closely resembled stalking. “Performance of self has always been relevant for homicide,” Yardley said. “Facebook has become an important tool for some people in ‘performing’ their identities and relationships.”

“Social media has enabled us to maintain a continuous ‘presence to others’ in a way that was not possible before,” said Yardley, who explained that when fantasies or false beliefs are challenged or debunked publicly, the backlash can get violent. “When these performances are threatened, a minority of individuals will react in a violent way towards those who have damaged their performance. When people use social media in a way that compromises the selves we want to perform, the impact is greater as more people are seeing the damage and the anger, shame, [or] rage that perpetrator feels is amplified.”

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Women were the most common victims of these crimes and men were the most common perpetrators, something largely consistent with intimate partner homicide on the whole. The male perpetrator and female victim dynamic made up 56 percent of all cases. Young people were also disproportionately represented throughout the sample in both the victim and killer roles, something Yardley attributed to the demographics that frequent the platform most commonly.

While the researchers could identify some common elements in many of these cases, they ultimately arrived at the conclusion that there’s no real benefit to grouping “Facebook murders” as a monolithic category useful for studying homicide in the modern era. Rather, they discovered that the biggest similarity in the group is simply that those reporting on the crimes found the social networking site’s role to be worth special mention.

“Homicides in which [social networking sites] are involved stand out as different and unique and as such, are more likely to be interesting to readers,” she said. “[But] I think these homicides may well have occurred without Facebook because these events are not one-off episodes but the culmination of months or years’ worth of increasingly controlling and coercive behavior. If the homicide hadn’t been triggered by something the perpetrator saw on Facebook, it would have been triggered by something else.”