It may be catchy, but it’s irresponsible to call Stephens the Facebook killer. Yes, he live-streamed a murder on Facebook. It’s heinous, for sure, but to blame Facebook is like blaming the gun. That line of logic, while it may hold psychological and political appeal, fans the flames of technophobia and doesn’t solve any real social problems.
Facebook is being used to broadcast Stephens’ killing but it doesn’t play a “role” in the killing. Facebook is a tool, nothing more. The availability of a social media platforms does not make people do things that they would not otherwise do. Criminals have historically used whatever media was available to brag about crimes and feel more powerful, from boasting at the corner bar to sending letters to the press like the Zodiac killer or to the police, like Jack the Ripper.
Social media serves the same purpose but has wider coverage and is now a normal way of broadcasting all kinds of news, not just evil deeds. We are sensitized to seeing horrors on our TV sets, but not on social media, hence all the attention. The irony is that by the amount of the press and mainstream media flocking to cover the story gives the killer the attention and sense of power he craves.
The silver lining, if you can call it that, is that social media provides the police with more evidence and helps speed their ability to apprehend criminals. Advances in technology also allow for the rapid sharing of information, such as postings on electronic billboards. The widespread attention also means that some of the inherent issues behind such acts, such as mental illness or other factors, are brought more into the forefront of social discourse.
An unfortunate side effect of widespread coverage of such an act, whether murder or terrorism, is the disproportionate attention paid to these issues can make people feel that the world is much more dangerous than it is. This creates fear. When people are fearful they often look for something to blame. Finding a “cause” gives people the illusion that the world is safer and less chaotic. Thus it’s easy to see how there will be a tendency to target social media tools such as Facebook. Facebook has stepped up nicely to try to stop the sharing of the Stephens video. The bottom line, however, is that social media doesn’t cause crimes or lure people into committing them.