Yesterday, police say, a Miami man shot his wife, posted a photo of her dead body on Facebook and confessed to the crime in a brief, ungrammatical post.
The deed was many things: repulsive, disturbing, indescribably offensive. But in the social media age, long after traditional news outlets stopped being the sole purveyors of information, it certainly wasn’t all that “shocking” — a description that has appeared in almost every article on the crime.
Rather, in apparently posting a picture of Jennifer Alonso, 26, to Facebook, Derek Medina basically did what dozens of accused killers have done before him: manipulate the media narrative about their cases.
The modern era has seen others ascend to such notoriety. People like Cho Seung Hui, the Virginia Tech gunman who interrupted his 2007 rampage to mail a package of pictures and videos to NBC News. Or David Berkowitz, better known as “Son of Sam,” who murdered six people in the ’70s, sent a crazed letter to the New York Daily News and inspired New York state’s laws against profiting from the crime. Or even the notorious Swedish serial killer Thomas Quick, who was recently the subject of a GQ profile that concluded that he’d invented his crimes — for no other reason than the resulting media attention.
There’s so much precedent for this sort of appalling, publicity-seeking behavior, in fact, that behavioral scientists have dedicated an entire body of research to the psychological links between violence and publicity. Their findings have been both consistent and alarming: Killers often want to achieve notoriety, and news coverage of a variety of crimes — including murder — encourages clusters of copycats.
Here’s where Alonso’s slaying gets particularly chilling. In the case of Hui, Quick, “Son of Sam” and others, the guilty parties peddled their stories to reporters, who could theoretically exercise some discretion on what details came out. It’s standard practice, for instance, to repress information about suicides, since copycats are common, or details that seem to glorify the crime.
But when a killer speaks directly to his public, anything can get through: images of the deceased, convincing justifications, perhaps incitement for others to follow. The picture of Alonso stayed up for five hours before someone at Facebook took it down — plenty of time for the image to circulate on Buzzfeed, Reddit and other Web sites, where it can stay into perpetuity. That means that her killer probably got what he wanted from putting the photograph online.
We don’t know much about Medina or his motives yet, but there’s evidence to suggest that he’s a sucker for publicity: Just look at the Twitter, Instagram and Wordpress accounts for his bizarre self-help e-books, which repeatedly order followers to “read this today.”
That’s not a great recipe for gaining attention on social media. But as Medina apparently found out — and, dangerously, as many others may find in the future — posting the details of a crime to Facebook is a sure way to achieve lasting international infamy.