Life and death online: the murder of Bianca Devins

27 Jul 2019

 

Earlier this month, Bianca Devins travelled 250 miles from her home in upstate New York to attend a concert.   She appears to have been driven to New York City from her home by a man named Brandon Andrew Clark, who she is believed to have met through a gaming platform two months prior.  On the way back, he stabbed her to death.

 

It seems that Bianca and Clark were in the early stages of a relationship, and began an argument after the concert.  

 

This is, sadly, not an unusual story in itself.  What is unusual is the manner in which her killing was portrayed, just moments after it had occurred.  Because Bianca's killer decided to post images of her body on his Instagram story.

 

This posting then uncontrollably spiralled into a social media drama, which involved Clark uploading graphic images of Bianca’s body to the gaming platform, Discord.  Friends of Bianca, unable to work out whether images and messages posted by Clark were real, alerted the police.  All the while, more and more posts were appearing, and they were being circulated and reposted through several US states.  When police eventually cornered Clark, he stabbed himself in the neck, lay down on Bianca’s body, and continued to take selfies, which he posted online.

 

Instagram has rightly been criticised for failing to remove the graphic content for hours, and for allowing images of Bianca’s body to remain on their site for days. It seems that even when people reported the images to Instagram, their algorithms deemed that the content did not violate Instagram rules.

 

But though Instagram’s algorithms failed, it is the human failure in this case that is most disturbing: the failure of humans to allow a dead person to rest in peace.

 

As Clark’s account was being shut down, some Instagram users who had copied the images of Bianca’s body left comments on his nearly defunct profile, signposting others to their accounts and urging them to view the photos there.  While a counter-protest occurred, with people sharing images of Bianca alive and smiling with a hashtag of her name, it is disturbing that for so many, the graphic photos became fodder for social media hits.

 

A discussion began on the radical message board, 4chan.  Renowned for its barely moderated, often deeply offensive content, 4chan served as a tool by which users could turn the graphic images into memes and discuss Bianca in a sadistic and misogynistic way. 

 

Yes, it is bad that message boards like 4chan are allowed to proliferate.  It is bad that Instagram’s reporting tool was so spectacularly unaware of what inappropriate content looks like.  But it is worse that these media machines bring out something in us that revels in gore and violence without a thought for the consequences.

 

There are plenty of articles out there which urge people to recognise that Instagram is not reality, to realise that the things people post are often highly stylised, artificial versions of their lives.  

 

But perhaps amongst all this, people have forgotten that what we see on social media has a very definite basis in real life, and cannot be completely disassociated from its original source.  The way that images of Bianca’s body were treated online following her death suggests that people were treating her and her life like a mere image or object.  This is of course a gendered issue, but the social media vehicle here facilitated the kind of uncaring consumption of Bianca’s image which took place.

 

Because it is easy, amongst all the posing and fantastical unreality that a channel like Instagram can offer, to momentarily class the image of a dead woman’s body along with all the other outrageous images that feature.  It is easy to simply see the image as a thing-to-be-looked-at, and look at it and share it in much the same way as other posts.

 

And just as the micro-detail in which Brandon Clark recorded his murder of Bianca may seem unfathomable, the way that many of us record our lives over the internet today would have been quite simply unthinkable fifteen or even ten years ago.  Using Instagram as a means to have an interior monologue of his life, Clark had taken the platform its extreme. 

 

And just as Instagram is full of posed holiday snaps and airbrushed close-ups, Clark made sure to pose as he went along.  He made a show of remorse by captioning his first image with ‘I’m sorry Bianca’, and attempted a kind of performed suicide (which ultimately did not work).  

 

Just like another instagram murderer, the Christchurch Mosque attacker, Clark saw instagram as a means to selectively craft a version of his life and action as it unfolded. In this way, the live-streamed version could live on, robust against future analyses.

 

And this is why we should be concerned.  Because what we see on instagram is not pure unreality; it is an alternate and simultaneously occurring reality which can reach more people than facts after the event ever can.  It is important for us to remember this, so that we never forget that people like Bianca were always people - even if their image is what we know best. 

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