Matthew Murray and The Dark Side of Support Forums

Ex-Pentecostals.org forums
Colorado gunman Matthew Murray displayed a disturbing pattern of behavior in these forums. Could this community have acted earlier to prevent tragedy?

Make no mistake: Online support forums, whether grassroots community efforts or run by organizations, generally do a hell of a lot of good. You can find support forums dealing with just about any issue or community. Personally I’ve participated in some support forums, and have generally benefited from them.

But there can be a dark side that managers and members of online support forums shouldn’t overlook: reinforcing negative triggers in mentally unstable people.

In fact, it’s possible that this dynamic this could have played a role in my own state last weekend, when Matthew Murray shot and killed four people in Arvada and Colorado springs, CO — and then finally killed himself after being downed by a church security guard…

Yesterday Denver NBC affiliate KUSA 9News reported that Murray apparently had displayed a disturbing pattern of behavior on online support and discussion forums run by the Association of Former Pentecostals.

The Denver Post reported that Murray’s final posting to that site, which occurred between the two shootings, plagiarized the final Web manifesto of Columbine killer Eric Harris. (Note: That post has since been removed from the forum, but other posts under Murray’s alleged screen names still exist.) According to 9News, a forum member warned the FBI at that point — sadly, too late to alter the deadly outcome.

Today, blogger Karoli offers serious food for thought about Murray’s forum posts. In Matthew Murray: Toxicity, Online Community, and Religion with a Twist (which I discovered via Twitter), she observes: “Some general observations about these [ex-Pentecostal] boards: The regular members seem to be pretty even-keeled, but definitely healing from a childhood of toxic religion in tightly-controlled family environments. They are not shy about criticizing the groups they escaped from, but in general, they seem to be dealing with their individual pasts in a forgiving and mature way.”

Karoli continues, “One of the limitations and dangers of communities like this is that there will be that one person who is determined not to get help and is actually triggered by participation in discussions about their past experiences, bitterness, and even abuse. [Murray] was one of these.

“Without question, his posts were painting a picture of someone contemplating a dark and violent end, and I’m certain that the leadership of this forum had done everything they knew how to do to help him. Still, even as he felt free to express himself in the safety of online interaction, the members were limited by the barriers erected by that same free space. Some members, trying to be kind and engage him, complimented him on his poetry, which encouraged him to write much more, and the more he wrote, the darker it became.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve seen situations like this online, but it is the first time that I’ve seen it come to this kind of an end. I hope it’s the last, but I am getting concerned about the possibility that participating (and venting) in a venue like the one Matthew used actually inadvertently contributed and gave him the outlet he needed to not seek help.

“…What, if anything, could the moderators or managers at the ex-Pentecostal forums do? Upon hearing the news of the shootings, they knew almost immediately that one of their own had likely been responsible. Could they have done anything else, preventatively? I don’t know.

“They were in a no-win situation. He wasn’t breaking the rules, and despite the encouragement, he was also receiving gentle suggestions to seek help, which he was rejecting. One possibility is to change the forum rules just a bit so that in situations where a member is clearly posting ongoing negative triggers, they are forced into a time-out. The problem with that, though, is that in Murray’s case, it would have felt like another rejection, similar to the one he received so painfully in the past.”

I agree with Karoli: I’m not sure there’s anything more the forum managers or members could or should have done in this case. As someone who’s active in several online forums, including some support forums, that saddens and frustrates me.

What do you think? What can we learn from this tragedy about heeding and acting on early warning signs in support or discussion forums, without undermining the strongly positive goals many of those communities achieve? I’m not pretending to have answers here, but I think this issue needs to be explored — especially with input from mental health professionals.

…On a related note, journalists, bloggers, and anyone should take special care: Don’t let this tragedy foster negative stereotypes of the “walkaway” community of former fundamentalist Christians.

A post yesterday to the x_fundies blog summed it up: “Almost undoubtedly this tragedy could have been prevented if the kid had been able to get appropriate mental help (unfortunately, this is not always an option without court intervention when the kid is being raised in an isolated dominionist household). Now that the fact he was on a walkaway forum has been publicized, there is the real chance we’re all going to be tarred as ‘anti-Christian’ trenchcoat killers.”

(NOTE: This post is an edited version of a post I made today to Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits blog. That version was specifically geared toward journalists and news organizations; this one is more general.)

5 thoughts on Matthew Murray and The Dark Side of Support Forums

  1. Amy, I’d like to suggest that some forums are probably analogous to online versions of group therapy, except without a professional clinician who knows how to recognize red flags that should trigger some kind of risk assessment re: whether or not to break the confidence of the group and contact law enforcement, potential third party victims etc. Think of the Tarasoff case – one of the touchstones of the duty to warn concept in mental health.

    Now, I don’t know if virtual group therapy forums exist where licensed clinicians can intervene just as they might if the group were meeting in person, but I would have to think that they do exist and the clinicians can and probably do intervene.

    It’s not realistic to imagine that every forum should have or needs to have some kind of clinician present or moderating, for the benefit of unspecified potential victims. That’s just not possible or necessary.

    But should the entities that host forums be guided by some guidelines that say something like, “If certain topics are the core of what will be discusses, it’s advisable that you have someone monitor the content”?

    I am thinking online (as opposed to outloud) now – so I don’t really know. But these are just some thoughts that come to mind after reading your post.

    Thanks.

  2. Hello there. I’m a member of the message board you referenced. As mentioned above, we did try to get him to get help for his mental issues. From what I’ve now learned, he was not only neurotic, but psychotic as well. He was hearing voices, and claiming to be psychic. Our initial fear, from reading his past posts, was that he was suicidal. We had no idea that he was also homicidal, until he posted his death threats against all christians, on the last day of his life. I figure that he intended it to serve as a final testament. I, along with another member, attempted to talk him out of doing this act of murder, but it was already to late. He had already killed those people at YWAM, and was on his way to carry out the shooting at New Life Church, after posting his final posts on our board. In closing, I just want to state for the record that we weren’t trying to cover up for Matthew Murray. We alerted the F.B.I. to the suspicious postings, as soon as we became aware of the killings in Colorado. We then deleted some of his posts, in order to protect his privacy from curiousity seekers. But the F.B.I. eventualy released them to the press anyway.

  3. Conservatarian, thanks so much for responding to my post. I realize that people in your forum — apparently including yourself — did try to reach out to Murray and to law enforcement. The sad thing is that when people are really determined to kill, it’s nearly impossible to stop them from doing so, and early warning signs are often ambiguous or difficult to detect.

    That said, I’d like to hear your views on the main point of my post — that sometimes support forums can have the unintended side effect of reinforcing negative triggers in mentally unstable people. Do you think — despite everyone’s best intentions — that might have happened here? And if so, how might a community such as yours address that?

    Please understand that I do not blame you our your community in any way for this tragedy. I’m just wondering how we can grapple with this thorny issue, and what other communities might learn from this experience.

    – Amy Gahran

  4. Conservatarian,

    I could tell from reading the message boards that you were doing all you possibly could to deal with him, not just on that day but on the days preceding his final acts. Like Amy, I don’t think there’s anything you all did that was wrong; in fact, I think you did everything possible to make it right.

    He may have been psychotic as you say, and I think that’s where behavior goes beyond the scope of online interaction. Alerting the FBI was certainly the right thing to do in that situation.

    Murray aside for a moment, do you have the sense that the venting process that sometimes goes on in support forums like this actually contributes to the shaky mental state of members, or does it heal?

    The questions I ask don’t come out of a spirit of condemnation at all — this is a very real problem that people in depression and anxiety support groups deal with every day as well. It boils down to the question of how best to handle members who may not only be dangerous to their real-life communities, but also their online communities?

    In reading Murray’s story, I feel an enormous amount of sorrow for his family and the folks in your forum who did try to help him. It was tragic that there was no intervention possible by the time he’d made the decision to go on his rampage, either by your community or those who interacted with him in daily life.

    I truly hope that all of you are healing and know that those of us looking in are not doing so to judge or criticize you.

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