Murder on Facebook spotlights rise of 'performance crime' phenomenon on social media

Cleveland murder suspect died on Tuesday after shooting himself.

ByABC News
April 18, 2017, 4:47 PM

— -- A video posted to Facebook that shows the killing of an elderly man in Cleveland has sparked both fear and outrage. Fear because the victim, Robert Godwin Sr., appears to have been chosen at random by his alleged assailant, and outrage because Godwin's last terrifying moments could be watched over and over again on social media.

Steve Stephens uploaded a video of himself allegedly killing Goodwin. Police launched a nationwide manhunt for Stephens, who ended his life by shooting himself on Tuesday after being pursued by police, according to Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams. The video of Godwin's murder was up for about two hours before being taken down by Facebook, the company said, prompting the tech giant to re-examine how it flags such content.

Stephens' alleged crime has drawn attention to a number of other illegal acts that have been documented on social media. In recent years, sexual assaults, random attacks and murders have been uploaded to social media platforms, sometimes drawing large audiences.

In 2015, Vester Lee Flanagan, aka Bryce Williams, recorded video of himself shooting two former co-workers and then put the video on Twitter.

Earlier this year, Chicago police arrested four people for allegedly torturing a teen and livestreaming the incident on Facebook Live.

Ray Surette, a professor in the department of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida, has called some of these acts "performance crimes," in which perpetrators essentially commit violent acts as if they were playing to an audience for attention.

He told ABC News that there have "always been people committing crimes with an audience in mind," although those crimes were not publicized as much before the rise of social media.

The tactic had been more commonly used by terrorist groups or political protesters to try to publicize their causes, Surette said, but now there are a growing number of people posting violent acts online who are not affiliated with larger political or armed groups.

"My reaction was, 'Oh geez, there's been another one,'" he recalled after learning of Godwin's death.

Surette said he worries that media coverage of crimes like this one and of mass shootings can contribute to a rise in copycat crimes. Research on mass shootings has found that a desire for attention and recognition can motivate some attackers. In a 2015 study, researchers looked at mass shooting data and found that after a mass shooting, it was more likely that there would be another within the next 13 days.

During a presentation at a 2016 American Psychological Association meeting, researchers from Western New Mexico University outlined similar findings. The researchers found that when there were more mentions on Twitter about a mass shooting, chances increased that there would be another mass shooting in the next few days. Additionally, the authors reviewed published material and found that "most shooters desired fame and wished to emulate a previous mass shooter."

But understanding the motives behind committing a horrific murder and then uploading video of it to the web is difficult. Such crimes are often the result of multiple factors, some of which may never be known.

Naftali Berrill, the director of the New York Center for Neuropsychology and Forensic Behavioral Science, told ABC News that the decision to upload video of a crime to social media may stem from a perpetrator's desire to take control of a situation. He said that in general, people who commit random acts of violence may do so to fight feelings of powerlessness.

"One of the things that you're communicating is that you're powerless," he said. "One of the surefire ways of trying to enhance one's sense of power and efficacy is to do something as brazen ... as commit a random murder online."

Berrill said by sharing the crime online, a perpetrator is also aiming to reach a sort of celebrity status or notoriety, even if it is for the worst possible reason.

"It elevates you for a moment," he said. "You have let the world know that you have not only the power but the wherewithal to take someone's life and to take someone's life in the most absurd nonsensical [way.]"

Cleveland police said they are still investigating what prompted Stevens to allegedly attack Godwin.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed the killing in comments he made during a conference on Tuesday.

"We have a lot more to do here, and we're reminded of this this week by the tragedy in Cleveland," he said. "Our hearts go out to the family and friends of Robert Godwin Sr. ... We will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening."