Updated 10 September 2015

'Selfie killings' – the need to share death and violence

CyberShrink comments on the need some people have to share the most gruesome details of their lives with the world at large – even murder, or their own suicide.


In the world of social media many people are deluded as to the extent to which the rest of the world is interested in them. If they tell us what they had for breakfast, and share every stray thought that amuses them, why wouldn’t some of them go the whole hog and post about the murders and other gruesome acts they have committed?  

Only this week someone managed to kill himself while posing awkwardly for a selfie with a gun. Other sad exhibitionists/narcissists have died posing with hand-grenades, or, as in one case, next to a wild bison that turned out to have much better taste than the twerp with the camera. 

Read: Woman records stroke with selfie video

It’s hard not to see this as proof of the theory of the survival of the fittest. Some people are so terminally foolish that their departure could only raise the average IQ of the population. 

Viewers around the world were shocked recently when an eternal loser, Vester Lee Flanagan, murdered a reporter and cameraman on live TV, before killing himself. 

Death on camera

There have been other deaths and even killings “on camera”, which means that the event was actually far less unique and strange than claimed by the media. What was unusual, though, was the way he not only chose to attack them when he knew they would be on live television and being recorded, but devised a way to record his own point of view as he carried out the crime – and then posted that video, with comments, on Facebook. 

This is an example of a “selfie killing”. He wanted the world to watch, and for us to know it was he who did it. Trolls exploit the anonymity of the internet so they can be as vicious as they like while hiding their identity, but people like Vester use the public nature of social media to broadcast their cruelty, making sure we know who they are and what they did, giving them a guaranteed platform for what they want to say. 

Read: Violent media desensitises boys

Vester sent a national news station a rambling 23-page declaration of his concerns and motives. He seems to have failed at every job he tried, always blaming other people for his failings. He tried to link his crime to the Charleston Church killings, as though he could steal some dignity from those victims, not realising that he was just emulating the evil of their killer.

His work as a TV reporter was always poorly rated, and he was especially criticised for being unoriginal, just repeating what the interviewee said to him, or duplicating press releases, without an original idea of his own. So it’s hardly surprising that he tried to imitate the respectability of other, genuine victims, and to pretend to be a victim when he was just another perpetrator. He was what we call a “wound collector” who assembles grievances, all blamed on others, collecting excuses for his series of festering failures.

Considering the amount of time many people spend in front of cameras, it’s hardly surprising that there have been numerous examples of death from natural causes on camera, such as the beloved British comedian Tommy Cooper, who collapsed and died in the middle of a televised performance. 

Other people have been killed on live TV, like President Kennedy, as well as his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Political assassinations are, in fact, often deliberately staged for optimal visibility.  

The breakfast TV suicide

Some deaths on live TV are carefully planned for their impact. One of the most notorious was that of Christine Chubbuck, a presenter, who, in 1974, during her live morning magazine show, pulled out a .38 calibre revolver and shot herself in the head. 

Read: Guns and suicide

Her mother said she’d despaired of having nothing whatever in her life other than the job she loved.

The previous week she told a colleague she thought it would be a “nifty idea” if she went on air live and blew herself away. She’d obtained approval to do a piece about suicide, and had consulted the police, exploring what gun would work best, and just where to shoot, then followed their unwitting advice exactly.

A politician departs 

Another notable suicide on live television was that of American politician Budd Dwyer in 1987. He’d been a senator and treasurer in the state of Pennsylvania until the day he died. In 1986 he was convicted of taking a bribe. He always insisted he was innocent and had been framed. In fact the main witness for the prosecution later admitted in a recorded interview that he had lied under oath to get Dwyer convicted, so he himself could get a reduced sentence. 

On the day before sentencing, Dwyer called a press conference on live television. There he pulled out a revolver, put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger, while five news cameras recorded the awful scene. Film of the dreadful event is still available online and was widely shown in America at the time.

Read: Warning signs of suicide

Other public protest suicides are well known, such as the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who committed suicide by self-immolation on a busy street corner in Saigon, in front of news cameras, protesting against the persecution of Buddhists.

Way back in June 1913, British suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, fighting for votes for women, went to the Epsom Derby and lunged onto the track carrying a political banner, as the group of horses, including one belonging to the King, reached her. She was trampled and suffered severe injuries, which led to her death four days later. The incident was filmed and widely shown on newsreels.   

There have been numerous recent “public” murders, using the internet to gain widespread coverage. Who can forget the awful case of Luka Magnotta, the Canadian killer, who was later arrested in an internet café in Germany. He had murdered a Chinese student, and posted  a video online of himself killing, dismembering, and eating his victim, then mailed various body parts to Canadian Government officials.

He craved publicity. Earlier he’d distributed online videos of him suffocating kittens with John Lennon music playing in the background, or feeding a kitten to a python. He’d failed in a career in porn and prostitution, avidly promoting himself, but mocked by others online. When his film of the appalling murder was posted, it also featured background music. Strangely, more viewers criticized the music and soundtrack than the awful act displayed. And only days later did someone report the video to the law authorities, outing Magnotta, and facilitating his arrest.

In 2013 it was estimated that nearly one in four people worldwide used social networks, with numbers rising every day. It is therefore fair to assume that we will see more and more cases of frustrated, narcissistic egotists who use the media to display the murders and other crimes they commit in order to get the attention they so desperately crave.

Read more:

Is social media healthy?

Filipino film highlights dangers of social media

Narcissism on the rise

Reference: Budd Dwyer (not for sensitive viewers)

Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.




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