The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How murderers use Facebook ( … it’s not how you think).

A screenshot from the Facebook page of “Charles Manson.” Not, we presume, the actual artifact. (Facebook)
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In November 2013, a Colorado man named Merrick McKoy took a selfie with his 19-month-old daughter and posted it to Facebook — before killing the baby and shooting himself.

“Ima miss stall lol [sic],” he wrote on Facebook. “Don’t judge me had no choice.”

The crime was tragic and horrifying, with or without the Facebook posts. But McKoy’s cheerful, kissy-faced selfie made it all the more disturbing — not only to McKoy’s friends and acquaintances, but also to criminologists, social scientists, legal commentators and other people who watch the fraught intersection of social relationships and crime. To these people, McKoy’s behavior wasn’t just a one-off case. It formed part of what looked, increasingly, like some kind of bigger social trend, a trend that included unsettling crimes from Australia to upstate New York.

The media dubbed it “Facebook murder” — and an Internet bogeyman was born.

“Blaming [Facebook] for these crimes,” scoffed criminologist Elizabeth Yardley, “is like blaming knives for stabbings.”

Yardley would know. The director of Birmingham City University’s Center for Applied Criminology, Yardley and her colleague David Wilson just published the first-ever study of the “Facebook murder” phenomenon in the Howard Journal of Criminal Justice. The study analyzed 48 recent homicide and manslaughter cases in which Facebook played a starring role. And it concluded, perhaps surprisingly, that Facebook is indeed a tool in the modern murderer’s bag of tricks — but that social media in no way causes or enables criminal activity. In fact, Yardley and Wilson caution strongly against even using “Facebook murder” as a term.

That’s because they found that, demographically speaking, murders that involve Facebook don’t differ greatly from murders that don’t. In both cases, the perpetrators are mostly male; the crimes frequently take place in homes; and the killer usually knows his victim — often romantically.

Here’s the twist, though: Even if “Facebook murder” doesn’t constitute a new genre of homicide, the perpetrators themselves tend to fit one of six specific profiles, based on how they use the network to carry out their crimes. While some, like McKoy, announce their intentions on Facebook, others have used it to declare their guilt: Consider the so-called “Facebook killer” Derek Medina, who posted a picture of his wife’s body to the social network after a fight. Even more killers (or alleged killers) use the site to keep up on the life of a friend, partner or ex, a typology that Yardley and Wilson dub “the reactor.”

Of these types, the “reactor,” “informer” and “antagonist” account for the vast majority of cases. Things that look more distinctly of-the-Internet — “predators” or “imposters,” say — make up only a fraction of the murders Yardley and Wilson studied.

In some ways, that’s the most striking takeaway from this new research. When it comes to safety on social media, we’re frequently taught to fear ill-intentioned voyeurs or catfish or other predators lurking in the Internet depths; a recent episode of the TV show “Castle” spent an entire 45 minutes on the anonymous-social-media-friend-as-serial-killer plot. But it would seem that, in reality, these distinctly Internet-y villains are overblown. Of the 48 killers Yardley and Wilson studied, only 12.5 percent were “predators” — people who adopted a fake name and attempted to lure strangers in.

Instead, the majority of “Facebook murders,” just like real-life murders, are committed by someone the victim already  knows. For better or worse, the Internet  has little to do with it.