August 19, Crime + Investigation

At first, the murder of Bianca Devins felt like the kind of story that floated around in the early days of the internet, an urban myth of AOL chat rooms and later, online dating: a woman brutally murdered by a man she met online. Although reports have since clarified that she had an offline relationship with the man who is alleged to have killed her, the heinous crime that went viral has brought a part of our online culture into focus.

Bianca Devins was a 17-year-old e-girl popular on Instagram and recent high school graduate, who lived in upstate New York. On 14th July, after she had attended a concert, graphic images of her body appeared across social media channels, including Instagram, Discord and 4chan. Her throat had been slit. The man posting them captioned the images with the words, ‘I’m sorry Bianca’.

According to Buzzfeed News, the images posted on Discord came with the words ‘you’re going to have to find somebody else to orbit,’ a men’s rights movement’s term for ‘non-alpha’ males who hover around the women they’re attracted to. It’s language that will likely feel familiar to anyone who spends time online: the rhetoric of the ‘incels’ and ‘red pill’ communities.

The photos had been posted by 21-year-old Brandon Clark, who is alleged to have killed Devins, before trying to harm himself. He is then said to have covered her body in a tarp, which he lay down on top of and took selfies. Utica police have reported the pair met on Instagram, but knew each other in real life and had met each other’s families. He has since been charged with second-degree murder.

In the hours after Devins’ death, the photos went viral, leading some users to accuse the crime of being a ploy by Devins and Clark to garner followers. When the police confirmed it, hashtags #ripbianca and Clark’s Instagram username started trending on Twitter. The photos spread across social media and were left up for hours before the site finally took them down and removed Clark’s account.

More disturbing is the cachet the images carried. Users claiming to have copies of the photos said they would send them to anyone that followed them. Some reported having a video of the murder, which they would also share in exchange for new followers, even though no such videos existed. When Instagram set filters to flag the images, users would find ways to subtly change the photos, so they would pass through. Some even used Devins’ name in their display names to garner more attention. Mashable found one account that claimed to sell T-shirts with the image on it. Bianca’s step mum had to post on Facebook asking people to stop. Within hours, it had become monetised.

It’s distasteful to say the brutal murder of a young woman went viral. But the role the internet has played also can’t be separated from the case. Social media, where we often go to share our lives and where someone else went to share the end of a life, is where Devins is said to have met her alleged murderer and where her death was subsequently used and exploited.

It has also given us a strangely intimate access to the tragedy. We have seen the crime play out, as well as the fallout. There have been tributes from Bianca’s family and messages from Clark’s.

The day after Bianca’s death, his brother James Ward posted on his Instagram, reacting to the news. In it, he seemingly confirmed his brother’s role, as well as posting the screenshots of hate-filled messages he had received towards his family from strangers. The next day, he posted again, speaking about his relationship with his brother and apologising to the Devins family. He later deleted it. They were personal, intimate and immediate reactions we wouldn’t usually see—and arguably, shouldn’t have in this case—but the internet has made us more ready to share our thoughts and there’s an audience to receive them.

In some ways, the story of the murder feels all too familiar. This isn’t the first criminal case we’ve seen connected to social media. Metropolitan police commissioner Cressida Dick blamed it for the rise in knife crime in the UK last year, as rows escalate online and translate to actions in real life. In 2012, the Guardian reported complaints to police about social media-related crimes were up 780%. It’s behind the rise in revenge porn. Then there are ‘performance crimes’, like this one, when culprits brag extensively online and use the internet to publicise and distribute their actions.

We also know that social media has made stalking and harassing people easier and women are often the victims, as research Amnesty International published in 2018 showed. It deemed Twitter a ‘toxic’ environment for women, who often face abuse. It’s only when that harassment translates to the real world, though, that some people seem ready to take it seriously. Until then, it is easily dismissed and those that are targeted are often told to ignore it.

For those in the public eye, it’s yet more common. It was easy to believe that Devins had been killed by an internet stalker, even if that story’s since been refuted, because it’s happened before—only usually, we hear about it when it happens to celebrities. The internet gave Bianca Devins a platform and made her familiar to her thousands of followers, but she wasn’t a celebrity, politician or journalist. She was a teenage girl.

Her murder feels like a very modern case: a specific product of the internet age. But while it might have been staged across Instagram, it also speaks to something bigger than it. Violence against women goes far beyond the internet: it’s ingrained in our lives. But the internet has also given the perpetrators direct access and their own platform on which to show it.