Bianca’s Story: Fighting For Accountability

This article is dedicated to Bianca Devins, in honour of International Human Rights Day, the culmination of the 2021 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women.

By Kim Devins.
Edited by Jessica Sutton.

July 14, 2019, I woke up to the knock at the door that every parent dreads. A police officer was checking on the welfare of my oldest daughter, Bianca, after reports had come in from people concerned about a post seen on Discord. Bianca’s murderer posted a picture of her bloodied body and it was rapidly being shared on social media sites.

Bianca Devins was a 17-year old aspiring model and artist. She loved anime, cats, and music, and even taught herself to play the ukulele. Bianca’s strength was inspiring. Although she struggled with Borderline Personality Disorder, depression, and anxiety, on the outside she wore a smile that lit up the room. She always tried to find the silver lining of a situation, even in her darkest moments. Whenever a friend needed help or someone to give advice or just listen, Bianca was there. She was her friends and family’s biggest cheerleader and defender. Bianca stood up for victims of bullying, and was a fierce ally for the LGBTQ community. And her murder has been weaponised by misogynists and internet trolls, while social media companies have failed to take action.

Facebook touts its hashing technology to detect and remove violating content. However, when asked by media outlets and myself why the technology failed to detect the horrific murder photo of Bianca, Facebook was silent. The answer? Social media platforms profit from horror.  Bianca’s @escty account on Instagram had around 2,000 followers on July 13, 2019. That quickly grew to over 160,000 followers when the photos of her murdered body began circulating. Every follow, comment, tag, and share on Bianca’s Instagram accounts are numbers that the social media company relies on to sell ads and generate revenue.  It doesn’t matter to Instagram that those numbers are driven by harming teenagers and those closest to Bianca. Instagram doesn’t care that the death photo of Bianca being shared on their platform was how many of Bianca’s friends learned of her passing. Instagram doesn’t care how many people have been traumatized and are suffering because of their failure and unwillingness to stop the spread of harmful images. And they don’t care that it is women and girls that are particularly vulnerable to this kind of online harm. This horrific content spreads so fast in part because of a strong undercurrent of misogyny in social media spaces that celebrates and glorifies evidence of harm done to young women.

Instagram waited over 24 hours to disable the murderer’s account, claiming they had to wait to “authenticate” and confirm details of the event. Meanwhile, Instagram and Facebook almost immediately memorialized Bianca’s accounts, which cut off my access to her social media and direct messages. Bianca’s accounts were being tagged in the graphic photo of her and to this day, the comment section of her Instagram is used to share the photo.  During a phone call with Dan Kidera of Facebook and Karina Newton of Instagram, I asked why Bianca’s account was immediately memorialized without my authorization. They didn’t have an answer except that it was their policy to memorialize an account if asked to do so by a family member. But no one in Bianca’s family requested her accounts to be memorialized before we had confirmed her death. Because Bianca’s accounts were memorialized without my consent, I was unable to change the privacy settings so that the accounts couldn’t be tagged in her death photos or to limit the comments on her pictures, all of which increased engagement numbers for Instagram which in turn generates ad revenue. Almost two and a half years later and Instagram still refuses to give me access to my minor child’s social media accounts.

In Bianca’s case, the social media companies also admitted to heavily relying on users to identify and report images and impersonation accounts. In July 2019, Facebook only had 15,000 community operations staff to monitor more than 2 billion users.  When asked why users who reported the death photos received responses that the photo did not violate community guidelines, I was told by Facebook officials that they were retraining the content moderators. I responded that there should be no way that any person could look at a photo of a stabbing victim and believe that was ok to be posted to social media. Again, no response.

In contrast, Facebook and Instagram seem to be easily able to prevent copyrighted material from being shared on their platforms. I can’t upload a memorial video for my daughter with copyrighted music without it being muted, but my daughter’s murder photo can be uploaded and sent via direct message. On Facebook, users are regularly suspended and banned from posting if they write seemingly violent messages regardless of the user’s intent.  If you post the word Covid on Facebook or Instagram, a Covid informational banner is automatically attached to the post. Tell me again why death photos of a 17-year old child were allowed to be circulated for over 2 years?

Social media companies need to be held accountable for what is allowed on their platforms. American laws need to be changed and new laws enacted to address the proliferation of illicit content. Bianca’s Law, currently being drafted, seeks to do just that. The language of the bill corrects the expansive interpretation and application of Section 230 (part of the US Communications Decency Act) which provides legal immunity for companies that facilitate the posting of illicit content by third-parties.

Bianca’s Law creates three narrow carve-outs under which internet companies would lose their section 230 immunities:
1. A company purposefully acts to promote, solicit, or disseminate illegal content;
2. A company has specific knowledge of content on its site that violates the law; and
3. A company does not remove illegal content after it receives notice of a court ruling that the content violates the law.

The legislation also requires internet companies to maintain a public reporting mechanism so that users can flag the company of illegal content on its service.

Beyond the Section 230 carve-outs, Bianca’s Law also includes the following:

  1. Social media companies must immediately disable and suspend accounts of murderers live-posting their murder and those accounts impersonating the murderer.
  2. Social media companies must have, use, and enforce a policy to stop the dissemination of banned (hashed) images in any and all forms.
  3. Social media companies must provide a crisis response center to respond in real-time to parents whose children are the victims of crimes on and through their platforms, including but not limited to child sexual exploitation and livestreamed or live-posted murder, rape, and violence. This crisis response center is to serve the purpose of stopping the spread of harmful material and preserving evidence for law enforcement and/or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
  4. Social media companies must have, use, and enforce a policy recognizing the intellectual property interest of estates of deceased users.
  5. All social media companies must have, use and enforce a policy recognizing a parent’s right to control their deceased minor child’s social media accounts. We also believe that parents must be given control of all their childrens’ social media accounts whether the child is alive or deceased.
  6. Ownership and control of a minor child’s social media account should automatically transfer to the parents or legal guardians of that child upon the death or incapacitation of that child.
  7. Any profits made by the social media through the posting of such graphic images should be placed in a “special fund” for victims. The social media companies must not be allowed to profit from the posting of such graphic images.
  8. Social media companies must have a system for monitoring the profits made from postings of such graphic images retroactively to the time when they were ruled as inappropriate.
  9. Social media companies should not be allowed to “profit” off the viewing of images including but not limited to child sexual exploitation and livestreamed or live-posted murder, rape, and violence.
  10. People who download, re-post or send/distribute these images should face criminal and civil penalties.

Bianca Devins is my daughter, she’s a sister, granddaughter, niece, cousin, friend. The list of who Bianca is goes on and on. What Bianca should not be, is a graphic photo of a murder victim used to make memes on social media for likes and clicks. Bianca’s life mattered. She deserves dignity and privacy in her death. That was taken away in part by the failures of Facebook and Instagram for allowing these pictures to pass through their technology inspection of the content allowed on their platform within the guidelines of their community standards. They must be held to account. And this must never be allowed to happen again.

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