|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.)