Social media

When murder goes viral: homicide in a time of online narcissism

 
 
Derek Medina and his wife Jennifer Alfonso in a photo from Facebook.
Derek Medina and his wife Jennifer Alfonso in a photo from Facebook.

ysavchuk@MiamiHerald.com

Derek Medina’s was not the first Facebook confession, but it may have been the most graphic. At least a handful of others have posted online about killing someone, but this seems to be the first time anyone included a grisly photo of the corpse.

In December 2011, a middle-aged Indiana man posted that he’d shot dead his 19-year-old ex-girlfriend and her friend. He also announced his own death.

“someone call 911. three dead bodies at 3229 lima road fort wayne Indiana,” he wrote. “I’ve killed ryann, erin, and myself. People were warned not to f----- play me and ruin me. They didn’t listen. Sorry about your luck.”

Police found all three dead when they arrived.

Last April, a 28-year-old Vietnamese man posted a Facebook message confessing to killing his girlfriend of six years after she broke up with him, press reports said. The man, Dang Van Khuyen, reportedly surrendered to police in Ho Chi Minh City soon afterward.

The same month, San Diego police began investigating a possible murder confession that went viral after being posted anonymously on the popular website reddit.com. The post, by a user identified as “Narratto,” said, “My sister had an abusive meth addict boyfriend. I killed him with his own drugs while he was unconscious and they ruled it as an overdose,” news articles said.

Experts aren’t surprised that people are turning to social networking sites to confess shocking crimes.

“Social networks are becoming more and more a public place. We shouldn’t be terribly surprised that people would gather in that place and do what people do, which is some things that are extremely unseemly and unconscionable,” said Al Tompkins, senior faculty at The Poynter Institute, a journalism think-tank.

Medina shared prolifically on social media sites, from 143 YouTube videos chronicling everything from his basketball games to his boat trips, to numerous self-published e-books.

“It’s quite common for people to see online social media as an extension of their life,” Tompkins said.

But beyond the common tendency for over-sharing, social networking can be a powerful platform for violence.

“Facebook is a magnet for people who want to be seen,” Tompkins said. “Often people who do things that are criminal or violent want to be recognized for their violence.”

Posting a gruesome status or image intensifies the impact of the violent act, he said. “This is a way to victimize not only the victim but all who consume the photograph.”

Medina’s post may indicate a narcissistic personality disorder, according to Dr. Prakash Masand, a former psychiatrist at Duke University who directs a medical education website.

“In the most twisted way, that’s the ultimate form of grandiosity. You’re posting the conquest of a bizarre action you performed for the whole world to see on Facebook,” he said. “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Online confessions are rare, but accidentally incriminating oneself in a crime is becoming more common, said Lauri Stevens, who consults with law enforcement around the country on social media. Gang members often boast by posting photos of drugs and cash, and online communications can preserve evidence of harassment or crime-plotting.

Criminals can also trip themselves up in less braggadocios ways.

In March 2012, a Fort Lauderdale couple exchanged private Facebook messages about how to dispose of the body of a friend they allegedly killed in their apartment, court documents said. Police charged 32-year-old James Ayers and 23-year-old Nicole Okrzesik with killing 18-year-old Juliana Mensch, whose body was found decomposing in their apartment.

On July 6, fugitive Wanda Lee Ann Podgurski was arrested in Mexico after someone tweeted “Catch me if you can” from her Twitter account a month earlier. The 60-year-old had been convicted of fraud in January in California, according to the Los Angeles Times.

A week later, a 23-year-old New Port Richey man was arrested in connection with a robbery after posting a series of Facebook comments trying to assert his innocence on his own wanted picture.

“That’s just making it easy,” Stevens said.

Even without posts from suspects, police have been using social media to crowd-source information — putting out a plea online for tips and eyewitnesses — in order to track people down, she said.

Before Facebook removed Medina’s profile at the request of police, the confession and graphic photo were widely shared on social networking sites. People have been responding to the death in the same way he published it — online.

At least three fake Facebook profiles for Medina have emerged, one with the tagline “I killed my wife, big deal.” They’ve received hundreds of likes and comments. Many have left disturbingly sarcastic comments on the listings for Medina’s books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Curiosity about gruesome acts is human nature, but social media has allowed it to go viral, Masand noted.

“It appeals to our basic instincts,” he said. However, Tompkins cautions against blaming the messenger.

“It’s not Facebook’s fault,” Tompkins said. “It’s a marvelous tool, but like all tools it can be used badly.”

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