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The dark side of social media

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Image: Twin Design /

Social media: it already affects our mental health, influences where we go on holiday and is supposedly behind black cats falling out of favour (they just don’t translate to the ‘Gram). We know it can be bad for us but try prising that iPhone out of our hands during an endless scroll. We let social media get away with murder.

The problem is, we actually do. Sort of. At least, there has been a link between the different platforms and some disturbing recent crimes, whether that means they have played out on it (as in the case of Fatima Khan) or the way it’s enabled criminals who have deceived people with the help of their perfectly polished online accounts (walk this way, Anna Delvey).

Just look at the recent case of Lucy McHugh, the 13-year-old who was found stabbed to death in Southampton this summer. A suspect in the case, the 24-year-old Stephen Nicholson, was jailed after he refused to give police his Facebook password. Police were trying to access any private messages he might have sent Lucy. Cressida Dick, head of the Met Police, said that access to criminals’ social media accounts could be crucial. Looking at the recent cases in which social media has played a part, you begin to see her point.

Fatima Khan was branded the ‘Snapchat queen’, a somewhat dubious title for an app-addict who arranged to have her boyfriend, Khalid Safi, killed. Instead of using her phone to call for help, she filmed Safi as he lay dying and put it on Snapchat, along with a warning that that’s what people who messed with her could expect. Snachat posts are automatically deleted after 24 hours, but one of Khan’s followers filmed the video. She also posted videos of her journey home and a chatting to her parents when she got there. She was found guilty of manslaughter.

An argument on Instagram erupted IRL when Henry Uzoka was murdered by fellow model George Koh. Uzoka had called Koh a fake on Instagram after he heard that Koh had claimed he had slept with Uzoka’s girlfriend. It was said that Koh was obsessed with the more-successful Uzoka.

Similarly, the motive in the murder of Joyce Hau (a 15-year-old girl from Holland who was stabbed to death) was also found to lie in comments made on social media. Hau had had a fight on Facebook with a friend and her boyfriend, who then allegedly contacted Jing Hua K and asked him to kill Hau and her family. He killed the girl and attacked her father.

Then there are the cases in which, like Lucy McHugh’s, social media’s use by criminals gives an insight into the crimes. Teenager Skylar Nesse was missing for six months before her body was found. She had been killed by her two best friends, Rachel Shoaf and Shelia Eddy. The girls said they had done it because they didn’t like Neese anymore, but there are rumours that it had more to do with the fact that the two were in a relationship and they didn’t want Neese to reveal it. One of the most chilling parts of the crime is that both Shoaf and Eddy were active on Twitter while their friend was missing and during the investigation. The flippant, typically teenage tweets read much darker when you know what they were concealing. Then there’s Neese’s own account, whose tweets become particularly tragic with hindsight.

More troubling still are the cases where victims’ social media accounts have been hacked and hijacked—by the people that killed them. Such was the case with Charlie Carver and Kala Brown. The couple disappeared in August 2016. Friends and relatives were instantly suspicious as the couple had left behind important things like their glasses, medication, their car and—most importantly—their dog.

And yet, posts started appearing on Carver's Facebook page that announced the couple had bought a house, they were married, they were expecting a daughter. Messages were even being sent to his friends. The problem was, it wasn’t Carver sending any of them. Carver's body was found on the property of sex offender Todd Kohlepp; Brown was found alive, in a cage, having witnessed the murder. Kohlepp later confessed to multiple murders

Anna Sorokin, who posed as billionaire heiress Anna Delvey to swindle hundreds of thousands of dollars, appears at her trial

Speaking of the way the internet allows us to lie about our lives, let’s not forget the infamous and recent case of Anna Delvey, a con woman for our times, whose crimes involve more of a knowledge of cheque fraud than any millennial in 2018 can likely claim to possess (who, after all, still writes cheques?). Not a German heiress, as she said, not even an Instagram influencer, she was revealed to be a grifter that conned people out of thousands of dollars. Her claims to wealth and society connections were laid out across her Instagram like a portfolio. Apparently, she was still posting selfies from prison, which takes commitment.

Suddenly, Cressida Dick’s statement that the police should be able to access the online accounts of suspects feels less invasive and more valid, if not essential. Social media might not be complicit in these crimes and it certainly isn’t responsible per se. What these accounts of murder and con jobs do show, however, is how easy it is for social media accounts to become a part of the story: to be manipulated, to be used and certainly to become witness to horrible acts.