The Internet and Cultural Rot

During the early hours of July 14 of this year, 17-year-old Bianca Devins was killed in Utica after attending a concert. The man accused of killing her is 21-year-old Brandon Clark, who allegedly slit her throat and uploaded photos of her bloodied corpse to social media sites. (He has pleaded not guilty to the second-degree murder charge.) While the relationship between Bianca and Brandon was initially unclear, the two had met each other on the internet before entering into a relationship. Bianca’s family described Brandon as having been a “close family friend,” but alleged screenshots of conversations between the two revealed a disturbing tension.

Judging from her social media presence, Bianca seems to have been what is colloquially known as an “e-girl”: a woman who extensively documents her daily life online for attention, and consequently has a dedicated online following of men. These followers are often “incels,” men who see themselves as involuntarily celibate and thus orbit around these online personalities out of desperation. Power dynamics between the two groups are multifaceted. Often, e-girls take pleasure in manipulating hordes of men, while incels may become frustrated by their relative unimportance and lash back at women. These men often frame their anger as a righteous rejection of the bad hand they think they’ve been dealt by society. The manipulation was evident when Bianca seemingly boasted about her sexual promiscuity to Brandon, and the frustration was present in the social media posts that Brandon allegedly made before and after her death, asking first if he would be redeemed and then apologizing to Bianca’s corpse. After allegedly killing Bianca, Brandon tried to stab his own throat, taking a photo of himself covered in blood for the world to see. He survived his possible suicide attempt and was detained by local authorities. 

Publications have attempted to frame the slaying as born out of male frustration. There is surely a kernel of truth to this, but it is an insufficient explanation for why a man would murder a woman he claims to have loved. Contrary to the beliefs expressed on genuinely misogynistic forums on the internet, no one, including Bianca, deserves to be slain for supposedly treading down an inane and dangerous path with her digital footprint. So while taking the half-truth of Brandon’s frustration as a cause of the killing into account, it would be beneficial to recognize the root of internet-inspired violence.

I increasingly find myself pondering the philosophy of the internet, and especially how it alters human relationships. I am not a neo-Luddite — I recognize all the good that the internet has brought to society. The level of connectedness an average American possesses is historically unprecedented, and the amount of information available to a student like me grows every single day. Going down a rabbit hole on Wikipedia is one of my favorite pastimes, for one can learn so much by chance and with relative ease. It is a great time to be an ambitious youth, for the world is changing before our very eyes.

Yet the internet has also caused a sinister darkness to take hold in our daily lives: cultural rot. The internet has, perhaps due to its ease of access and seeming anonymity, enabled many to act on their crudest desires as if there are no real-world consequences. Belle Delphine, the quintessential e-girl, has sold water in which she bathed for outrageous profit. Pornography, with its degradation of women, has proliferated to the point where its social consequences are blatant. Most shockingly, photos and videos of genuine killings and deaths have become so common that many of us are only momentarily taken aback by such violent images. We have become desensitized — numbed by a hedonistic outlook and slaves to ephemeral desires. Too many people accept the Bianca/Brandon dynamic as normal while condemning only its boiling over. We have forgotten how to question the internet because we have allowed it to take such a great hold over our lives.

It is difficult, but not impossible, to reject the internet and live an “analog” or non-digital life. Increasingly, however, that way of life is construed as being for antiquarian professors and out-of-touch lawyers. What, then, can we do as a society to counter the looming force of the internet’s cultural rot? The answer is simple: we must inculcate a sense of virtue within the digital paradigm. While any definition of virtue might suffice in pushing back against societal degradation, the Aristotelian notion of moderation as the ideal is most serviceable here. While a curriculum may not yet be well-defined, proper digital citizenship should be thoroughly taught to the next generation of internet users, so that the internet is a tool and not a danger. Without constraining free will, heavy, unhealthy social media should be disincentivized. In particular, we should aim to curb real-life validation which is dependent on social media. Interpersonal relationships should be recognized as more than just a streak on Snapchat. Most importantly, however, everyone who uses the internet must recognize its destructive potential, so that Bianca’s death may be a lesson to us all.