On Sunday morning, before he gained unwanted fame on Facebook as a homicide victim, Robert Godwin, 74, visited his son, Robert Godwin Jr.
“He hugged my wife and me and said ‘I’ll see you guys next time,’ ” Godwin Jr. told Cleveland.com. “I said ‘OK, enjoy your Easter.’ ”
The elder Godwin, a retired foundry worker with nine children and 13 grandchildren, was out looking for aluminum cans, which he collected. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
A man, whom police later identified as Steve Stephens, approached him.
Just before fatally shooting Godwin in a video uploaded to Facebook, Stephens asked him, “Can you do me a favor? Can you say ‘Joy Lane’?”
“Joy Lane?” Godwin responded, appearing confused.
“Yeah,” Stephens said. “She’s the reason why this is about to happen to you.”
He raised a gun and pulled the trigger.
The camera spun around. When the picture came back into frame, Godwin’s body was on the pavement, an enormous streak of blood beside him.
The shooter zoomed in with his camera on Godwin’s bloodied face.
“I haven’t watched the video,” Godwin’s son told Cleveland.com. “I haven’t even looked at my cellphone or the news, I don’t really want to see it,” he said.
Killed for nothing. The shooter didn’t even know him, police say.
“That motherf‑‑‑er dead ’cause of you, Joy,” the shooter said before he walked back to his car.
Godwin was chosen on a whim, by a man looking for attention, or trying to send a sick message to someone else, and perhaps to the world. It certainly seemed Stephens planned it. When visiting his mother, Maggie Green, on Saturday, he told her, “If you see me again, it’ll be a miracle,” as she recounted to CNN. She hasn’t. Police said he might be as far as Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana or Michigan. Police described him as a black man, about 6-foot-1 and 244 pounds, bald with a beard, wearing a dark blue or gray striped polo shirt, possibly driving a white or cream-colored SUV.
It’s just the latest example of a growing horror.
The sudden popularity of live-streaming video services such as Facebook Live and Twitter’s Periscope — along with the ability to upload previously shot videos to the platforms — has increasingly been accompanied by the sharing of violent acts such as slayings, rapes, suicides and even torture. The videos are posted by people seeking attention, even feelings of empowerment. Now, experts worry about copycat offenders and, worse, people seeking to “one-up” the gruesomeness of the last viral video.
As Cleveland police and the FBI launched a manhunt Sunday, Facebook officials removed the original video of the slaying from its platform.
“This is a horrific crime and we do not allow this kind of content on Facebook,” a Facebook spokesman said in a statement. “We work hard to keep a safe environment on Facebook, and are in touch with law enforcement in emergencies when there are direct threats to physical safety.”
But removing a video from the Internet is nearly impossible. In mythology, soldiers battling the multi-headed Hydra faced a problem: For each head they sliced off, two more grew in its place. Authorities attempting to scrub the Internet of certain videos face much the same problem. Copies of a deleted video still multiply and spread at lightning speed.
Thus the latest video joins a list of horrific scenes floating around on the Internet, such as the Chicago teenager gang-raped on Facebook Live, and the many, many suicides. All, of course, can still be found. But why did they exist in the first place?
“People who engage in this behavior, particular those posting it to social media, characterized by feeling disempowered,” James Ogloff, the director at the center for Forensic Behavioral Science at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, told The Washington Post.
In the latest case, Stephens clearly hoped a specific person — identified by him as Joy Lane, which some outlets have reported was a former romantic partner — would watch him kill an elderly man. Stephens directly addressed Joy in the video.
Ogloff said that Stephens addressing Joy, “presumably someone he was angry with,” suggested he was seeking a feeling of empowerment. He committed a murder and “wanted her to pay for it” through the guilt she might feel.
Before online streaming services, though, Ogloff said, someone like Stephens might have merely stopped at fantasizing about hurting someone. Instead, he seemed to have planned a murder.
“Just thinking of what you can do to someone you’re angry with is pretty empowering,” he said. But social media adds a new layer: a captive audience.
“There’s no such thing as an accident without a crowd gathering and standing on tiptoes in order to see the person lying on the ground,” Henry Seiden, a clinical psychologist, told Broadly. “There is a fascination with other’s pain because it’s only one gesture removed from our own pain. We could be the one lying on the pavement.”
With each new viral video, the idea that showing heinous acts leads to attention is reinforced.
“The largest asset online, that everyone is fighting for, is other people’s attention,” Vincent Hendricks, the director of the Center for Information and Bubble Studies at the University of Copenhagen, told The Washington Post. “Attention is a natural currency for human beings. We like attention; we like to be recognized.”
“One thing we know that grabs other people’s attention is anger or fear,” Hendricks added.
“There’s an easy stock exchange on this — how many likes are you going to get out of it?” Hendricks said.
Last year, for example, an Ohio teenager live-streamed the rape of her 17-year-old friend. “She got caught up in the ‘likes,’ ” the prosecutor said.
As more people watch, meanwhile, the more normalized such violent videos become. Ogloff said he has worked with many young people who are “very desensitized to violence by exposure to the Internet.”
Indeed, that seems to be the case. In January, for example, three people were arrested in Sweden after allegedly live-streaming a three-hour gang-rape of a partially conscious woman. One person who viewed the rape told Sweden’s Expressen he thought “it was a poorly orchestrated joke.”
It could get worse. Both Hendricks and Ogloff mentioned the idea of violent offenders not just committing copycat crimes but potentially attempting to “one-up” each other. Or, as Ogloff put it, “trying to make your perverted behavior more shocking than the last.”
Since “horrific things tend to spread online,” Hendricks said, the more horrific a video is, the largest audience it will likely garner.
“It becomes a race to the bottom,” he said.
“There will be a small but core group that will watch this and sympathize with this guy,” Ogloff said of Sunday’s slaying, adding that the group will likely be young people who “love being in the media. They love being in the newspaper, or being online. That can perpetuate the cycle.”
Stopping the cycle might prove difficult. Ogloff noted that although Stephens’s life, if he is caught and found guilty, will likely only get worse, “essentially no one will care what happens to him.”
“The problem is this guy will now be immortalized in that video,” Ogloff said.
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