Last week, the internet was transfixed by a horror movie unfolding in real time over social media.
Seventeen-year-old Bianca Devins of Utica, N.Y., was allegedly murdered by Brandon Andrew Clark, whom she met on Instagram.
Clark then committed the further degradation of posting images of her mutilated body online across various platforms, according to Utica police.
The hashtags #ripbianca and #yesjuliet [Clark’s username on Instagram] trended for hours in North America as people reacted to the killing and the public fallout.
Devins’ death is the latest thread in a terrifyingly common story: violence, especially against women, exploited, mocked and celebrated online.
The photos of Devins’ body were disseminated rapidly over several platforms and apps, memes were created mocking her death and Instagram users began asking for ‘follows’ over the promise to share the photos of the murder.
Over a week after her murder, CTVNews.ca was able to find photos of Devin’s body online within 20 minutes.
The psychology of sharing violence against women online
Dr. Patrick Baillie, a former president of the Canadian Psychological Association and a forensic psychologist and lawyer, said to CTVNews.ca in an email that the sharing of violent and gory images is done for a variety of reasons.
“For some, the sharing of these sorts of images is done purely for shock value, to revel in the reaction that other have to such disturbing content,” Baillie said. “Doing so online offers much more anonymity and what we call social distance than, for example, showing printed images to family, friends, or neighbours.”
Baillie said that sharing these images or videos “often comes with justifications like ‘everyone does it,’ ‘they’re online anyway,’ or ‘people show worse things than this.’”
Baillie also said that the launch of social media, “generally has made sharing images, good and bad, much more common,” likening it to the meteoric rise of online child pornography cases where “access and distribution [is just] a few clicks away.”
Last year, Amnesty International published a scathing indictment of Twitter’s inaction on the online abuse, sharing of violent images and doxxing aimed at women called #ToxicTwitter.
Aurelie Sanhaji, previously known online as Aurelie Nix, of Montreal, the creator of “A Woman on the Internet,” a blog that mixes intersectional feminism and social commentary with video game reviews, says that online violence against women in particular is a pervasive issue.
“Marginalized folks’ experiences with prejudice does not stop when we are online,” said Sanhaji in an email to CTVNews.ca. “Women very often are treated as though we are guests in space that is meant for men, unwelcome spaces a lot of the time.”
Sanhaji says that interactions that start as “perfectly normal” online often escalate rapidly “over the smallest, simplest things.”
“Depending on what it is that you talk about, the backlash you may receive may not be simple disagreements,” Sanhaji says. “With our lives often very openly shared online…your home address or workplace may be accessible to some people…and some of these people may feel comfortable using that information.
“I often compare online harassment to street harassment, because they are nearly identical it’s just that one of them is particularly isolating because it often doesn’t have any witnesses and the law barely acknowledges its existence” says Sanhaji.
Sanhaji herself was a victim of doxxing, rape and murder threats after a seemingly harmless post on popular content-sharing site 9gag in 2015 about male gamers interacting with female gamers.
“I reported it to the police, but because of the way people do not understand how online spaces work, my experience was dismissed as a simple joke, a prank,” said Sanhaji.
In the case of Devins’ murder, Sanhaji said she was “surprised and heartbroken” at how people on the internet reacted.
“The reaction was beyond apathetic, it blamed Bianca and the way she chose to exist online, it blamed her for her own murder,” Sanhaji said.
“Her murder became a meme, entertainment, her humanity was stripped from her and she was berated for belonging to herself.”
Sanhaji says that horrific events like Devins’ death and violence against women being “dismissed [and] mocked is not new,” but the prevalence of it in online spaces “is proof that the conversation on men’s entitlement, violence against women, is not happening.”
Where is this happening?
The dark web and more accessible sites such as Liveleak.com are no longer the final frontier for sharing gore and pain. It’s pervasive on mainstream apps and servers for anybody to consume, willingly or not.
Discord, the platform aimed at gamers and their culture, estimates that it has more than 250 million active users worldwide, many of them interacting in open chat rooms or servers.
Touted as an easy way to chat to friends while playing video games via text, voice and video calls on desktops or mobile devices, due to lax content moderation, access to things like pornography, violent images and far-right ideology on the app is readily available.
Devins was active on Discord, and it appears that Clark interacted with her on the app. It was one of the first platforms that her photos of her body and accompanying messages from Clark appeared.
Although Discord claims in its terms of service that users must be 13 years old to join, there is no prompt when signing up to prove your age – only a verified email address is needed.
In an email to CTVNews.ca, a Discord spokesperson said they were “shocked and deeply saddened” by Devins’ murder and that they are “working closely with law enforcement” to provide assistance.
But for many Discord users, the reality of day-to-day interactions on the app is a contradiction to the company’s supposed hard stance.
Jack Jennings, an 18-year-old Canadian Discord user, reached out to CTVNews.ca over Twitter after Devins’ murder to express “how common instances of stalking, sexual harassment and other crimes are on the platform.”
In a series of messages, Jennings said himself and “dozens of his friends have faced harassment” on Discord, including having nude photos of themselves shared without consent.
Jennings said many of the victims are minors.
“One of the servers has 20,000 participants, and is aimed at teenagers so most of the users are under 18,” Jennings said.
“If minors are sexually harassed in the server they [Discord] give up to five slaps on the wrist before permanently banning harassers, and overall aren’t doing enough to address the issue.”
When asked about the notorious reputation their platform has accrued, including the allegations that images of Devins’ body are still available on their platform, Discord said that “in regards to ongoing investigations, our policy is not to comment” and directed CTVNews.ca to their official policy statement:
“Discord has a Terms of Service and Community Guidelines that all users are required to adhere to. These specifically prohibit harassment, threatening messages or any illegal activity. Discord’s guidelines cover more expansive activities than other platforms’ rules and include activities such as doxxing and sharing private information. We investigate and take immediate action against any reported violation by a server or user, which can include shutting down offending servers or banning users.”
Other sites including Reddit, 8chan and 4chan, where users can post anonymously or create throwaway accounts, have been heavily criticized for the same apparent lack of protection and enforcement of rules for users as Discord.
4chan and 8chan have become notorious in recent years as being the breeding ground of increasingly violent, radical rhetoric posted by users – with connections to a number of deadly attacks across the globe, such as the Christchurch mosque shooter and the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia white nationalist rally.
Users from both those sites were some of the first online communities to discuss Devins’ murder, with users “celebrating another 4chan murder” and discussing Devins’ death in violent and misogynistic terms according to the BBC.
What needs to change?
Dr. Pejman Mirza-Babaei, a user experience researcher and associate professor at the Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, Ont., said in an interview with CTVNews.ca that more education is needed to combat the sharing of violence and abuse online.
“To me there are a couple of different components, is the technology [to report abuse] there? Do users know how to use it?,” he said. “Technology is advancing faster than people learn how to use it – so better education is needed.”
In terms of sharing and removal of content, for platforms like Discord, Mirza-Babaei says that on public servers, the company has systems in place to police or moderate the content, but due to sheer volume, things slip through the cracks.
On private servers and apps, however, it gets trickier to enforce policies and guidelines.
“In private, if they [the platforms] step in, users can argue they are violating their privacy,” Mirza-Babaei said. “So the Privacy Act is involved then.”
Mirza-Babaei said that clarification is needed from the platform creators, such as having reporting functions “available and easy to use” and clearer content guidelines and policies.
As the images of Devins’ body began circulating on Sunday, horrified users trying to have the images removed by content moderators were left frustrated when the pictures remained online for hours – often with messages saying the content “did not violate community content guidelines.”
A spokesperson for Facebook, which owns Instagram, told CTVNews.ca last week that they “do not comment on ongoing cases,” but that they had removed the content from Clark’s Instagram account for violating their policies.
They also said they had “taken steps” to prevent others from re-uploading the content, but did not elaborate on what that entails.
Other internet users took matters into their own hands.
In an attempt to “cleanse the feed” of Twitter and Instagram users, people began spamming the hashtag #ripbianca and #yesjuliet with photos of glittery pink clouds, cute animal photos and flowery landscapes to combat the exploitation of Devins’ murder. Many of these messages were accompanied by messages of comfort, and instructions on how to report the offensive images.