Zama murders and malicious online intent

A man in Zama, Kanagawa Prefecture, arrested in connection with the deaths of nine people whose dismembered bodies were found in his apartment allegedly lured his victims, who reportedly posted messages on Twitter that they wanted to commit suicide, by telling them that he would help them kill themselves or they would die together. The 27-year-old suspect is quoted as telling the police that he killed the victims — believed to include teenage girls and to have come from various areas including Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Gunma and Fukushima, all of whom he had never met before — in the course of just over two months starting in late August.

The entire picture of the gruesome crimes may have to wait until further investigations and charges. Media reports indicate the suspect gained the victims’ trust by claiming, falsely, that he wanted to commit suicide as well and invited them inside the apartment to rob, molest and kill them. He is believed to have hunted his prospective victims by searching social media for suicidal postings and by setting account names for himself hinting of his own suicidal intent.

Social networking sites such as Twitter are said to be awash with messages suggesting suicidal intent, postings that solicit others who would be willing to commit suicide together, or exchanges of information about methods of suicide. These messages are posted anonymously through accounts set up using pseudonyms, but the users who exchange messages can also communicate directly with each other. Crimes that take advantage of the convenience of SNS communication are nothing new, and outright regulation of these exchanges would be difficult. But something should be done to crack down on the malicious intent that lurks in cybersphere.

According to the National Police Agency, more than 900 people under the age of 18 fell victim to crimes via social media, including sexual crimes such as child prostitution and pornography, in the first half of this year, with the number of such crimes rising since the government started taking relevant statistics in 2008. More than a third of the victims fell prey to the crimes through Twitter.

In the past, large numbers of “suicide sites” on the internet were a serious social problem. In a shocking incident in 2004, seven men and women who came to know each other through one of these websites committed group suicide by lighting a charcoal stove inside a vehicle in a parking lot in Saitama Prefecture. When a method of generating hydrogen sulfide gas was widely circulated on the sites, the number of suicides using the gas increased sharply in around 2008. In 2005, a man lured three boys who posted suicidal messages on such sites one by one and murdered them — reportedly for fun. The man was convicted of the murders and subsequently executed.

These incidents and crimes prompted the police and web operators to take action such as closing the problematic sites, which have apparently declined in numbers. A guideline was set up requiring internet providers to alert the police when urgent information concerning users’ suicidal wishes was spotted. However, people who were using those sites then reportedly turned to social media to post their messages.

It is said that many of the people who post suicidal messages on SNS do not necessarily wish to die. Instead they want somebody to listen to their problems — because they don’t have others around whom they can turn to. And when they get a reply from somebody responding to their plight, the risk arises that they could trust the other party and get duped.

A revised law against stalking regulates the repeated sending of messages on social media, but there are no legal regulations about suicidal messages. In response to the Zama murders, Twitter Japan said it will prohibit posts that seek to assist or encourage acts of suicide and request that such messages be deleted if found. The government says it will consider what actions can be taken online to deal with the problem. However, outright legal regulations on exchanges through social media — which involve private conversation between individuals — will be difficult.

In view of the large numbers of crimes targeting minors via social media, the education ministry is urging schools to enhance student education on the issue. Before summer vacation started, it distributed leaflets to junior high and high schools urging caution among students about encounters with others on the internet. How effective such steps can be in addressing the problem exposed in the Zama murders case remains to be seen. But efforts to fight the problem must continue— the situation cannot be left as it is.