The ‘Facebook Killing’ of Robert Godwin Sr: Performance homicide and the culture of narcissism

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On Easter Monday I woke up to the news that a man in Cleveland, Ohio had allegedly committed a homicide. Not only did he appear to have taken the life of Robert Godwin – a 74 year-old man simply walking along the street – he’d posted footage of the killing on Facebook. He also uploaded a video of himself talking on the phone whilst driving in his car. In this video, he said that he had killed 13 people – claims that have not been substantiated by law enforcement at the time of writing.

I’m going to refer to this man as SS in this blogpost because I want Robert Godwin’s name to be the one that’s remembered.

I have researched homicide perpetrators who have used social media in relation to their crimes for several years now. In 2014 I lead a study exploring how 48 killers from around the world had used Facebook. I was in the USA in August 2015, when local television news journalist Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward were shot and killed by a former colleague as they reported live from Roanoake, Virginia. I remember the horror on the faces of the people around me as the events unfolded on our television screens and smartphones. I have recently completed a book exploring the role of social media in the killings of Jennifer Alfonso, Charles Taylor, Emily Janzen, Laurel Janzen and Shelly Janzen.

The killing of Robert Godwin has a ring of the familiar to it. Killers use social media to tell stories about themselves and those around them. Within these stories they present a range of characters occupying particular social roles and identities. In posting about the killings on social media, they believe they are getting ahead, taking control of the narrative before anyone else gets the chance to do so.

These cases embody the infantile narcissism that runs through the veins of networked media society. An egoistic, self-centred, “Me, me, me” outlook is facilitated by the widespread acceptance of hedonism.  Phrases like YOLO – You Only Live Once – have become part and parcel of the vernacular. Since the rise of mass marketing from the mid twentieth century, narcissism has become socially acceptable and indeed encouraged. In a technologically sophisticated, mass mediated culture, we are able to justify and indulge this under the guises of self-promotion, personal branding, and self-prioritisation – it’s all about us, because we’re worth it.

All of this plays out in a context where to be is to be seen. The eminent criminologist Professor Steve Hall sums this up perfectly, “the terror of insignificance, of remaining unrecognised by others, might now reign supreme as the most potent and extractable source of human energy”[1].

Social media postings by killers are performances, they are made to be seen by others. SS wanted to be seen in the role of the killer – he wanted to take on this identity and show it to others. The video was his way of proving that he had killed. He vented his frustration at the fact people were sceptical, asking him whether the video was real. SS said that was the “the crazy part”. The fact he’d shot Robert Godwin in cold blood wasn’t the crazy part according to SS. It was the fact people didn’t believe it. Nobody believes I’m telling the truth. Me, me, me. It’s not fair. Infantile narcissism.

SS appears pathologically obsessed with what other people think of him and conveys an extreme sense of entitlement. Entitled to be looked at, entitled to be noticed, entitled to be listened to. The video was his perverse attempt to communicate to others that his sense of being in the world had shifted, he was now something more than he had been before.

SS placed himself in the role of the victim. He said he’d always been the butt of people’s jokes. He tried to blame his ex-partner saying that she drove him to his “pushing point” and he “snapped”. However, the very fact that he shared the video online simply reinforces his agency,  his choice, his responsibility and culpability for what he has done. Scratch the surface, look beyond the rhetoric and the cold reality of this killing becomes clear.

We need to take some responsibility here too. We can’t control other people’s actions but we can control how we respond to them. The videos SS uploaded are currently pinging their way around the internet, being consumed by countless people. This is the very embodiment of wound culture[2], in which we’re drawn to the trauma and suffering of others, a pathological public sphere fascinated by the broken minds of killers and the broken bodies of their victims.

SS has had far too much control over the narrative of Robert Godwin’s death. We now need to take this back. We can do this by keeping Robert Godwin’s name at the centre of this story and depriving his killer the oxygen of publicity. In our society, where to be is to be seen, social media enables people like SS to tell their stories and perform in ways they want others to see them. They are the producers of their own macabre, self-indulgent autobiographies, their content particularly marketable in wound culture where the compulsion to gather around tragedy is startling.

Let’s push SS back into the dark where he belongs and ensure that the only visible face of this story is that of Robert Godwin. Please join me in using the hashtags #hisnamewasrobert and #RobertGodwinSr when you are sharing your views about this case on social media.

Dr Elizabeth Yardley is the creator and host of Crime Bites Podcast and an Associate Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University

[1] Hall, S. (2012). Theorising Crime and Deviance: A new perspective. London, Sage, p. 172.

[2] Seltzer, M. (2007) True crime: Observations on violence and modernity, New York: Routledge.

Image: “Twitter, Facebook, Together, Exchange Of Information” by Max Pixel is licensed under CC0.

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