Don’t blame Stephanie Scott’s murder on the internet

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
April 15, 2015 /

Click here to view original /

Reports of the horrible murder of Stephanie Scott have taken a familiar turn. Now that the fetishisation of her soon-to-be-bride status has waned, attention has moved to the alleged perp, Vincent Stanford.

Reports this week have been quick to disclose that Stanford likes violent videos. Neo-Nazi propaganda. That he has an elaborate online fantasy life.

Many seemingly unfathomable crimes, in fact, get reported this same way. Clues are presented to help readers piece together an – albeit hokey – story of how such an atrocity could transpire. By thinking a pattern exists, shaken onlookers can delude themselves into believing that they now know what a warning sign looks. That such diabolical acts can surely be prevented next time.

Clues, of course, take a very specific form in these reports. Back in 1996 for example, we didn’t get information about Martin Bryant’s favourite foods or his preferred hair styling products. Instead, we were informed that he had a fervent interest in Chucky videos. Because loving a fictional homicidal doll renders a person deviant within an us vs them culture salivating for easy answers.

When Ted Bundy claimed, in 1989, that pornography made him rape and slay over a dozen women, predictably, his claim was seized upon as a truth. Bundy was simply “confirming” suspicions already rampant in a culture that wants to control pleasure, to control media, and is desperately seeking simplistic explanations and “solutions”.

Believing that media is more of a contributing factor than, say, meat-eating, masculinity or mental illness makes sense, of course. Media after all can be controlled, can be tamed, can be censored. Because our culture already kinda sorta believes that media is a problem. At least it is for some people. (To quote communications scholar Joseph Slade, “Pornography can’t hurt me … but it will absolutely corrupt my twit of a neighbour.”)

It is, therefore, thoroughly unsurprising that we don’t know Vincent Stanford’s favourite colour, sandwich filling or whether he was breastfed as a baby.

Knowing however that he likes Nazi marching music and military-themed computer games provides the perfect aha moment for an audience that wants to see murderers as stereotypes, who wants to believe that media has miraculously transformative powers, who wants to believe that horrible things can be prevented.

Despite research aplenty disproving the monkey-see-monkey-do idea of media, in practice media-as-great-and-powerful is simply too seductive an answer. And it’s been too seductive an answer since the inception of radio, of television, of the internet. And it’s been this way since we got it into our heads that the new, that machines, that technology are each worth fearing.

Chucky and porn were the answers to crime in decades past, and now in the internet age the bogeymen of online gaming, of online role play, of cyberspace as a kind of badlands provides the new magic bullet.

We now know, for example, all about Stanford’s online identity as Quetzalcoatl, a mythical Aztec serpent. We know this because such a slithery, scary avatar can only help to pad out the picture of a cyber creep.

The news media – as well as popular media, as I explore in a forthcoming book – loves to allege that the internet can somehow create villains. That in an online world where identity can be played with and reality reinvented, that surely some of this is going to seep out into real life. Surely such fun has to come at a social cost.

And yet, in a world where most of us are actually online nearly permanently, it seems extraordinary that such demonising of internet users still transpires. Apparently there is still some journalistic logic in trying to separate normal and deviant use of the computers. Posting well-lit selfies and laboriously curated images of a “happy” life on Facebook is apparently fine, safe, normal: using a snake avatar and gaming for hours online apparently makes a person more likely to be a murderer.

Excessive internet use is mainstream today and is far too common to serve as any kind of useful clue. Pretending therefore that those who game online or play with identity online are somehow different is cruel, is indicative of a journalistic laziness and hints at the consumption of one too many episodes of Criminal Minds.

Demonisation and stereotypes might embellish a story, but surely a more nuanced approach to understanding the criminal mind is well overdue.

© Lauren Rosewarne