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Tuesday 17 September 2019

Justice

Mob rules

As the case of Ana Kriégel shows, the clamour to name underage criminals on social media is on the rise

By Rachel Connolly

This summer, two 14-year-old boys from Lucan, a small town outside Dublin, became the youngest ever people to be convicted of murder in Ireland. Both had pleaded not guilty to the charges, but – over the course of a seven-week trial – conclusive forensic evidence and damning inconsistencies in the stories that they told detectives led the jury to a different conclusion. One of the boys was also convicted of violently sexually assaulting their victim, a 14-year-old girl they knew from school named Anastasia Kriégel, who usually went by the nickname Ana.

Sentencing has been adjourned until next month, to give a group of psychiatrists time to complete an assessment of the boys. Although the pair were not tried as adults, the judge can still decide, under Irish law, to mete out life sentences due to the severity of the crimes.

Whatever the length of their imprisonment, one aspect of the boys’ legal treatment has already caused considerable public uproar – their lifelong right to anonymity. Under the Children Act, anyone who reveals the identity of either boy could face a fine or a prison sentence; of up to €10,000 or 3 years, for particularly serious cases. Ana Kriégel’s murderers will always be known publicly as Boy A and Boy B.

The disused farmhouse in St. Catherine’s Park where Ana’s body was found

Or will they? A journalist has already been fined €2,500 for accidentally naming Boy A on a radio broadcast on Red FM, with the station itself fined €10,000. This is exactly the sort of situation that the longstanding anonymity rules were designed to address. But now there is an entirely different and still largely unregulated realm of public discussion – social media platforms. In the wake of the murder trial, another historic legal case began, with Facebook and Twitter forced to answer to contempt of court charges after photos of the boys were shared many times on the sites. At the hearing, the court heard that another boy, who had nothing to do with the murder, had also been named as a killer online, and that Boy B’s family had gone into hiding after their details were posted.

Both companies are now under an injunction making them responsible for removing any content that could identify the boys. What’s more, the court has also ordered them to take measures to prevent any such content from being published in the first place – or at least to try.

This is, as the platforms have pointed out, a difficult thing to achieve. Both use teams of human moderators to search for posts relating to the case, but those moderators face several challenges. The sheer, unrelenting volume of posts means that, sometimes, some may slip through the cracks. And then there is the question of what to actually search for: using the boys’ names could flag up and censor perfectly innocent posts, and may also mean that moderators miss posts such as the one that wrongly identified an innocent classmate. Meanwhile, photographs are even harder to keep track of and can be screenshotted before they are removed.

The River Griffeen flowing through the centre of the village of Lucan

There are technological solutions to these problems, yet even they have their limits. Facebook has software that can “blacklist” a specific image, thereby blocking any attempts to repost it – but it does not have the capacity to scan all images posted to the site and check whether they contain a certain face. Meanwhile, Twitter has said that it cannot preemptively block images of any type.

The injunction on Facebook and Twitter will remain in place until after the sentencing. It is not yet clear what responsibility they will have, if any, to police the issue for the remainder of the boys’ lives.

 

For some, however, any policing is too much policing. A quick search of social media reveals hundreds of accounts decrying the decision to grant the boys anonymity – and calling for them to be named. A tweet from Arlene Bartlett, a woman from Wexford, is a case in point: “Boy A and Boy B should have their names released. If they’re able to commit such a malignant act then they should be able to handle the public knowing their names, they don’t deserve the privilege of anonymity, Ana Kriegel certainly didn’t get any. #AnaKriegel.” It has received 1,700 likes.

When I spoke to her, however, Bartlett was more ambivalent. She says that she felt compelled to talk about the case because she had been the victim of a sexual assault herself, so it “really hit home”, but also because of the reactive nature of social media: “I discussed the case on Twitter because that’s where I saw the verdict and I felt I needed to say something.” She also says that the site’s character limits, which don’t leave much room for nuance, contributed to the uncompromising wording of her post. “I still stand by my statement, but I meant it in an idealistic way, like how we all want world peace. I know logically why they couldn’t be named, but I think it’s unfair that when they get out they’re going to have a new life on taxpayers’ money.”

Posts calling for the pair to be named are not breaking the law, but they do contribute to an online environment in which people feel emboldened to share photos and names, since there seems to be public support for doing so. Bartlett reveals that, after her post was shared widely, people sent her screenshots identifying the boys, via Twitter’s direct messaging system. She has deleted those screenshots.

It’s all part of a growing phenomenon that has been called “digital vigilantism”. A recent paper in the academic journal Global Crime identified several different strands – from “hounding”, which is defined as naming and denouncing criminals, to the less serious activity of “flagging”, which involves sharing photos of people who are doing something antisocial, such as men spreading their legs too widely on the Tube. In general, experts define digital vigilantism as “an online response to a perceived civil or moral transgression”. But they find it much harder to explain why people engage in it.

Members of Garda Síochána, the Irish Police

Sociologists and psychologists have long struggled to assign a coherent motivation to old-fashioned, offline vigilantism. But it is generally understood to involve a group of volunteers trying to assert their idea of what a civilised society should look like. It has a public shaming element, and involves a challenge to the effectiveness of the state or legal institutions. Daubing expletives across the house of a paedophile who has served their sentence, for example, is a way of expressing discontent with the way the justice system has dealt with them. Crucially, it could also have a practical outcome, however insidious, for the community itself – forcing the paedophile to move.

The purpose of digital vigilantism is less clearly defined. If the name of a paedophile is shared on the internet, where exactly are they meant to move? The possibility of a practical outcome is limited, since so many of the people who are participating will be far removed from the target. Academics say that this suggests that the public shaming element plays a larger role in digital vigilantism. And there might also be an element of virtue signalling, since this type of vigilantism has a larger audience and involves much less effort.

“Often vigilantism comes from the belief that your views are correct and should be advocated for, and the digital environment makes it come at a much lower cost,” explains Dr Donald Saucier, an expert in the psychology of online communities at the University of Kansas. “In the digital world you don’t need to take risks to your personal safety, and you can also be completely anonymous.” This is why people who would not engage in traditional vigilantism may still take part in the online variety.

And so, in the case of Boy A and Boy B, people from places such as Australia and England weighed in. A man named Gary from Manchester posted: “Fucking awful that Ana Kriegel’s name been dragged through the media since her death and these 2 little scum of the earth boys names gets immunity because they’re minors! Someone is bound to leak their names sooner or later. Jail term is not enough. #JusticeForAna.” He told me that he had an opinion on the case because it was widely reported at the time, but he’d barely thought about it since. “You tweet whatever’s in the media on that specific day and then move on to something else I suppose. That’s how it works, isn’t it?”

In a specific respect, though, Gary is atypical. Many of the posts calling for the two boys to be identified were from young women – not men, and not a group normally associated with violent retribution. When I spoke to them about their motivations for commenting, many admitted to feeling a personal connection to the case because of the extreme, violent misogyny involved. Most also argued that people who post photos of the boys should not be prosecuted. And all said that they did not expect online comments to have any impact in the real world.

Take Lauren Curran, who authored a tweet with about 1,200 likes: “‘Boy A is connected to the scene by DNA found on Ana Kriegel’s neck and on semen found on her top’ absolutely barbaric & still has the audacity to plead not guilty, withholding their identity is selfish they do not deserve any protection.” She says that the case will stay with her forever, since the victim was a teenage girl, and that she felt a sense of community among the people posting about it on social media. “Everyone was very much heartbroken and devastated for Ana and her family and wanted to show support in any way they could.”

And her view on those who had revealed personal details about the boys? “I think they need to be educated on why the case was conducted as it was, I think the identities were posted out of ignorance.”

Flowers and tributes in memory of the 17-year-old stabbing victim Yousef Makki

Many of the accounts that did reveal the identities of Ana Kriégel’s killers were anonymous ones – and have been removed under the terms of the injunction. But similar accounts can be found commenting on another shocking case that recently occured in Manchester. This March, Yousef Makki, a 17-year-old boy on a scholarship at Manchester Grammar School, was stabbed to death by a classmate, again known as Boy A, with another young man, Boy B, charged as an accomplice.

The court heard that the three boys had arranged to buy cannabis from a local dealer with the intention of robbing him but, when the meeting didn’t go as intended, Makki and Boy B ran off, leaving Boy A to take a beating. Boy A said that when he caught up with Makki and Boy B, he was angry and punched Makki in the face. In the resulting scuffle, he stabbed Makki. He claimed self-defence since, he said, Makki had been the first to produce a knife. Both boys ran off and left Makki dying, hiding their own knives in a bush on the way home.

News that the jury had found Boy A not guilty of murder nor of manslaughter and cleared Boy B of all charges prompted outrage from the local community, particularly because of the privileged backgrounds of Makki’s killers and the racial dynamics at play. Makki’s friends held protests outside his school, and one of Manchester’s MPs, Lucy Powell, tweeted: “You do have to ask if these defendants were black, at state school and from, say, moss side whether they would have been acquitted.”

Again, both boys have been granted lifelong anonymity. But, in this case, there is no injunction on social media platforms. Perhaps because of this, a network of anonymous accounts has been discussing the killers more openly. One such account, under the name of ‘Z’, was created for the sole purpose of sharing information about the murder – which may be illegal. None of the people I spoke to about Kriégel had known her personally, but Z claims that they had met Makki several times at parties: “He was a really nice guy who saw beyond people dressing differently and being part of different cultures.”

Family, friends and concerned members of the community attend a justice for Yousef Makki protest outside Manchester’s Crown Court

Z has shared posts revealing the identities of Makki’s killers. He’s also saved a screenshot of an article accidentally published by the Manchester Evening News that contains the name of Boy A, with the intention of showing it to his friends. “I think because they won’t be behind bars for long, people ought to be aware they are capable of stabbing someone,” they said. “Their identities should be public for reasons of public safety. You’d want to know if a paedophile lived on your street, why should it be different for someone accused of murder?”

 

The boys in the Makki case may not inspire sympathy – but the principle of our legal system is that the same set of rules has to apply to all cases, even the most extreme. Anonymity, after all, often acts to protect victims.

An example of this was the Belfast Rape Trial last year, which involved some of the same elements as the Ana Kriégel case: a group of young men, an accusation of sexual violence, and a figure being granted anonymity. Four men, including two high-profile rugby players, were accused of rape and sexual assault. The jury found them not guilty of rape, but evidence including blood-soaked underwear, physical injuries and degrading texts showed that the woman had, at least, been subjected to an unpleasant sexual experience.

Irish rugby player Paddy Jackson speaks to the media after being found not guilty of a charge of rape

The young woman who brought the charge was granted anonymity, but since rape trials in Northern Ireland are open to the public anyone could go to the court during her testimony and see who she was. Her name was shared on Twitter, Facebook, and in WhatsApp groups. A juror was even cautioned for commenting on the case on a news website.

As well as demonstrating its impact on innocent people, this case also underlines the difficulty of assigning a motive to digital vigilantism. It is hard to argue that the accuser in the Belfast Rape Trial poses a danger to society; the motivation here seems to be, exclusively, public shaming.

Dr Daniel Trottier, an internet sociologist, has described this kind of public denunciation as the “weaponization of unwanted visibility”. His research suggests that a combination of the culture of sharing personal information on the internet and the ease with which media such as photos can be recorded and spread has led to an extreme regime of visibility in online spaces, which makes conducting surveillance on those around you feel normal. As he puts it, “People engage quite casually in online vigilantism because the posts are presented in the same format as comments from friends.”

Protestors demonstrate outside the home of Ulster rugby at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast

“You’re addressing some sort of a public so it provides a space to vent with instant feedback. It can give a sense of empowerment or catharsis,” he adds. This is borne out when considering the mildest form of digital vigilantism – flagging – which appears to have the lowest stakes but is also, as Trottier points out, the hardest to understand when it comes to motivation. During the hottest days of this year, I noticed that photos of strangers, effectively being shamed online for wearing summer clothing, kept appearing on my Twitter feed. One man took the time to share a video he’d secretly recorded of a slightly-larger-than-average man wearing denim shorts at a pub, with caption “Central London [and five upside down smiles]”. It went viral.

The uncomfortable truth about anonymity is that it has always been difficult to police. It is very hard to control what people talk about with their friends and family, or what they choose to scratch on to toilet cubicles. But what the internet has created is a new, enormous theatre for public shaming, and an audience of likeminded people who will probably react positively – whether the subject at hand is a murder case, or simply someone’s dress sense.

Further reading

The Irish Times‘ coverage of the Lucan case has been particularly thorough. It includes this summary of five key pieces of evidence that led to the convictions of Boys A and B, as well as a multi-part audio retelling of the trial, which starts here.

Last year, Channel 4 aired an episode of Dispatches that looked into Facebook’s content moderation policies and how they are enacted – by a company in Ireland. It found that graphic, violent and offensive content would remain on the site even after it had been flagged by numerous users.

‘The many shades of digital vigilantism’, the Global Crime paper that’s referenced above, can be found here.