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April 19, 2017 9:00 AM EDT
Lankford is a criminology professor at the University of Alabama and the author most recently of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.

On Easter Sunday, a Cleveland man broadcast on Facebook Live as he fatally shot a 74-year-old man. The killing was not the first instance of a criminal choosing to share his or her actions via the streaming service to reach a greater audience. In January, four assailants tortured a young mentally disabled man in Chicago for an online audience that reached over 16,000 simultaneous viewers. In March, several people webcast the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl, also in Chicago. (The phenomenon is not limited to the United States, though: A similar rape case occurred in Stockholm.)

These recent examples of people filming their crimes and sharing them on social media — part of trends that reach far beyond live-streaming — have shocked many law-abiding citizens. But while criminals’ technological abilities are new and jarring, their desire for fame is part of something far deeper. Realizing this will help society understand them.

In some ways, fame-seeking motives are not so different from the motives behind money-driven crimes. When society defines “success” as the acquisition of class and wealth, some people who cannot “succeed” through legal means commit theft, burglary and robbery. They share society’s goals of financial success, but they take an illegal path to get there.

The problem is that the American definition of “success” has expanded to include fame. According to Pew Research Center surveys, 51% of Americans aged 18–25 say that “to be famous” is one of their generation’s most important goals in life. Similarly, as part of their professional ambitions, many adults now compete to grow their Twitter base and promote themselves online.

Unfortunately, this widespread desire for fame has been accompanied by an increased blurring of the distinction between fame and infamy. Many people, including even the President of the United States, seem to agree that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.”

Given this social context, it is not surprising that some people who cannot get fame legally will commit crimes to get fame instead. This risk is especially high for people with narcissistic tendencies, because they are so desperate for attention, and they lack empathy for those they have to trample upon to reach their goals. In addition, people who feel angry, suicidal and deeply underappreciated may see fame as a way to restore their damaged status and may believe they have nothing to lose.

Advances in technology — such as smartphones that make video recording easy and websites where users can upload their own videos for the world to see — only enhance the temptation to seek fame through deviant and criminal behavior. These offenders believe they can do it all themselves.

This creates a frightening confluence of factors and forces. A year ago, I predicted that if these trends continue, the number of fame-seeking rampage shooters will continue to grow, some will attempt to kill more victims than past offenders killed and some will “innovate” new ways to get attention. As I was in the midst of preparing that article, a man in Roanoke shot and killed two people on live television and then posted the video to Facebook. Then, just a few months after the article was published, the Orlando nightclub shooter killed 49 victims and wounded 53 more. During the attack, his fame-seeking motives were unambiguous: he called a local news station and then checked Facebook to see if his attack “went viral.”

But these trends can, with concerted effort, be reversed. In the long run, politicians, community leaders, teachers and parents should push back against the American fixation on fame-seeking. Past psychological studies have shown that people who prioritize extrinsic goals such as fame, self-image and money are more likely to struggle with anxiety, narcissism and depression. By contrast, prioritizing intrinsic goals — such as personal growth, social relations with others and well-being — promotes greater healthiness and life satisfaction.

In the short term, we should also do more to deny fame-seeking criminals the attention they desire. It may be impossible to fully stop offenders from posting their crimes to social media, but that is typically not their end goal, anyway. The worst offenders usually have far-reaching delusions of grandeur that could not be satisfied by social media attention alone. They want capital-“F” fame — to have their names and faces featured everywhere, so they are personally known by everyone.

We do not have to give it to them. Calls to terminate live-streaming services seem excessive, but Facebook and other social media sites should closely monitor user uploads and quickly disable anything that contains illegal content or has been posted by fame-seeking criminals. (The fact that the younger Boston Marathon bomber’s Twitter accounts are still publicly accessible, for example, is hard to defend.) In most cases, once these offenders are no longer a threat, the media can refuse to publish their names and faces, while continuing to report the newsworthy elements of their crimes. And as members of society, we should inform both traditional and social media companies about our new priorities. If we no longer need to satiate our morbid curiosity by consuming dangerous and distasteful content, it is time to let that be known.

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