Gruesome Insta Murder Reignites Concern Over Spread of Graphic Images Online

Published July 21st, 2019 - 08:41 GMT
/Shutterstock
/Shutterstock

Instagram celebrity Bianca Devins was murdered in Utica, New York on Sunday July 14th. Her killer, Brandon Clark, then posted graphic images of his victim’s corpse online. She was 17. 


Clark sent the images to users of a particular server on the popular group messaging app Discord, which bills itself as a ‘free text and voice chat’ service ‘for gamers’. He also uploaded images, including a selfie featuring himself lying on the victim’s corpse, to his own Instagram page. That account has since been removed.

The images still spread across a number of platforms including Instagram, as users copied the images to their own accounts and urged users to view them. The images also circulated on popular online sites like the anonymous image board 4chan. 
 

Clark sent the images to users of a particular server on the popular group messaging app Discord

When officers tracked down and found Clark -- who had called police himself --  he laid down on a tarp he covered Devins’ body with, and continued to take selfies. He had also been stabbing himself in the neck in front of the officers.

After he was taken into custody, Utica police clarified in a lengthy statement posted on their official Facebook page that Clark and Devins were not strangers, but that they had met two months prior on the image and video-sharing social networking service Instagram. Clark’s self-inflicted injuries were said to be severe, though he was expected to survive. 


Initial rumors circulated online implied that Clark had stalked and tracked down his victim, who had a blossoming following on Instagram (her handle being @escty). The official statement given by Utica police provides a different narrative.
 

Utica police clarified in a lengthy statement posted on their official Facebook page that Clark and Devins were not strangers, but that they had met two months prior on the image and video-sharing social networking service Instagram


The statement also explains that the pair were in a “personally intimate” relationship. Just before the grizzly murder, the two were returning from a concert where an argument had begun and subsequently escalated. 


The spread of the chilling images echoed controversies following comparable recent events. On March 15, 2019, the killer behind the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand live streamed his rampage on Facebook for 17 minutes. It was too late already even after Facebook attempted to remove the stream as the video had already been downloaded and saved by users anticipating such a response. 

The clips were then re-circulated in other mediums, and as it stands it is not terribly difficult to find copies online. In a bid to rouse emotions, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan played the video at an election rally just a few short days after the fact, a move for which he was sharply criticized. 
 

On March 15, 2019, the killer behind the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand live streamed his rampage on Facebook for 17 minutes

Facebook, which owns Instagram, has already been under fire for its poor handling of gruesome imagery in recent months. Content moderators sift through hundreds of images and videos a day, a severe detriment to their mental health.

Much of this work is outsourced to third-party companies, both abroad and in the US, like the Phoenix-based “professional services vendor” Cognizant. An investigative piece by The Verge highlighted the toll such work takes on employees. 

Users who felt Instagram and its content moderation team was not doing enough in the wake of Bianca Devins’ murder have been flooding the platform with positive photos of the victim from previous months, using hashtags like #ripbianca #escty and #justiceforbianca in order to stem the flow of users reposting the gruesome images. 

As recently as late last month, a debate ensued when a photo of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23 month-old daughter Valeria, who drowned in an attempt to cross the Rio Grande and into the United States where they hoped to apply for asylum, was shared widely across various media outlets.

As recently as late last month, a debate ensued when a photo of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23 month-old daughter Valeria, who drowned in an attempt to cross the Rio Grande and into the United States where they hoped to apply for asylum, was shared widely across various media outlets.

Some remarked that it was similar to the image of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Meditterranean in September 2015. Although some believed that sharing the image was justified insofar as it raised awareness about the migrant crisis at the time, others warned that it simply worked “to elicit a self-satisfied feeling of sadness among Western observers”

Although many are upset with Facebook’s poor track record in responding to tragic events like the New Zealand mosque shootings and Bianca Devins’ murder, some have been critical of the methods used by other websites to curb the flow of gruesome imagery -- especially photo and video emanating from conflicts in the middle east. 

A change in YouTube’s algorithms, for example, has been automatically deleting videos uploaded by citizen journalists in Syria. That video could in fact be the only evidence for human rights violations.

A change in YouTube’s algorithms, for example, has been automatically deleting videos uploaded by citizen journalists in Syria. That video could in fact be the only evidence for human rights violations. Implemented in June 2017, the algorithm change ostensibly sought to curb ‘extremist’ content but videos uploaded by citizen journalists seem to be getting caught in the crossfire.

Content which depicts “gratuitous violence, dangerous and illegal activities, and hate speech,” are all banned according to YouTube’s community guidelines. While video uploaded by citizen journalists can certainly depict “gratuitous violence,” deleting such content risks erasing an essential archive of evidence of brutal crimes committed during Syria’s ongoing conflict.  

While both Facebook (which owns Instagram and Whatsapp) and Google (which owns YouTube) are often criticized for not doing enough to curb the spread of gruesome imagery, attempts to streamline and increase the efficiency of those processes come with some downsides. In the aftermath of Bianca Devins’ murder, the issue is likely to be reignited.

Though companies like Facebook can certainly do more to prevent the spread of such images, contending with bad-actors who are dedicated to re-sharing and circulating removed content will prove a puzzlingly difficult task. 


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