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Congressman, slain teen’s family, call for greater social-media accountability

David Hill
Staff writer
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Posted 8/8/19

UTICA — After 17-year-old Bianca Devins was killed, her mother and other people in her family received pictures of her from anonymous harassers via social-media platforms, something Congressman …

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Congressman, slain teen’s family, call for greater social-media accountability

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UTICA — After 17-year-old Bianca Devins was killed, her mother and other people in her family received pictures of her from anonymous harassers via social-media platforms, something Congressman Anthony Brindisi said should be investigated by both the parent companies and federal agencies to prevent from happening again.

Brindisi, D-22, Utica, was joined by her mother Kimberly Devins and grandfather Frank Williams in a press conference at the congressman’s Utica district office Wednesday.

Bianca Devins was found stabbed to death early on the morning of July 19. Utica police arrested her former boyfriend and charged him with killing her. Police said he took pictures of her body and put them on social media platforms before he was taken into custody. Afterward, her family received messages containing one or more of the photos. “Many of these private messages said, ‘Look at your daughter now,’” Williams said. “We can’t understand the emptiness of someone’s heart and their cruelty that would make them do such a thing. I can only think that they might not have been raised in a loving environment like Bianca was.”

He and Kimberly Williams wore shirts with “Justice for Bianca” printed on them. They also show an image of a girl in a swing. He described her as “a 17-year-old aspiring model, a wonderful artist and a 17-year-old girl that still loved swings.” As Williams spoke, he fought back tears. “I’m thinking of pushing her in the swing right now.”

Brindisi released letters he sent to Instagram and the Federal Trade Commission in which he called for a full investigation about why the graphic images were not caught earlier and what social-media companies and the federal government can do about such harassment.

Such images would likely result in fines for broadcasters, Brindisi noted. But the Devins family contacted Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, and were told only that such pictures would get a “sensitive content” warning.

Brindisi said he spoke with Instagram officials about the matter in a phone call and was told the Bevins family now has a direct number they can call to get any more images they get taken down. 

“They’re doing a review as to what went wrong. I think they are taking some responsibility and feel that they can do better.”

But Brindisi said he seeks a commitment from social media companies to permanently ban users who share these images and to keep them from using the apps under a different name. He also wants the companies to fully comply with local law enforcement should users be prosecuted for aggravated harassment or other crimes.

The Federal Communications Commission jurisdiction over broadcasting began when commercial radio grew in the 1930s under the principle that broadcast frequencies are a limited and public resource. Social media companies are not subject to such regulation, but Brindisi said the Federal Trade Commission can investigate and help define the problem and explore what Congress could do.

Internet service providers’ actions could be part of the investigation as well, Brindisi added. Part of the investigation should consist of an audit of what social media companies do to detect such graphic images, including technology that finds and flags them, and the training of staff, Brindisi said. Then authorities and the companies themselves should determine how to improve the process.

“Whatever filters they have in place, whatever manpower they have in place failed, because these images still made it through,” Brindisi said.“There needs to be more accountability. If these multibillion dollar corporations can’t get it done, then it’s time for accountability at the federal level.”

The platforms involved included Instagram, Facebook, Youtube and Discord, a chat service primarily for gamers.

Williams said he was encouraged that there is discussion toward creating internet-wide standards and gave the companies credit for listening.

“I am very, very hopeful, particularly that Facebook and Instagram are going to take a leadership role on this,” he said.

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