On Tuesday, a YouTube video starring an Ohio drunk-driver began circulating on the Internet. In it, the 22-year-old recalled driving intoxicated in mid-June of this year, slamming into a car on the highway, and killing a Navy veteran.
“I beg you, and I say the word beg specifically, I’m begging you, please don’t drink and drive," concluded Matthew Cordle, who swore to take full responsibility for the incident. Even more bizarrely, production and filming of the viral tape came courtesy of website Because I Said I Would, which immortalizes "promise cards" of commitment over the Web.
Cardle's confession isn't the first of its kind this summer. Back in April, a Reddit user named "Naratto" scrawled on a "Confession Bear" meme: "My sister had an abusive meth addict boyfriend. I killed him with his own drugs while he was unconscious and they ruled it as an overdose." Redditors tracked down the user — apparently a 24-year-old from California — who was furious about his privacy being invaded. Charges were never filed, in part because of the unreliability of the confession.
Then, in August, a Florida man shot and killed his wife after a vicious struggle (he claimed) and proceeded to post photographs of her body on his Facebook account. Derek Medina posted the caption: "Im going to prison or death sentence for killing my wife love you guys miss you guys takecare Facebook people you will see me in the news."
Though the couple's friends and family reacted in shock in the photo's "comments" section — "That is my friend there" — the photograph was shared almost constantly for five hours, until Facebook got wind of the incident and swiftly disabled Medina's account. He now faces charges of second-degree murder.
On Sunday, just before Cordle's YouTube confession went live, the founder of PostSecret — a blog that receives postcards with secrets scrawled on them, and posts them online — uploaded a postcard with what looked like a treasure map on it. Next to a giant red arrow, someone had written: "I said she dumped me, but really I dumped her (body.)"
The area was searched, but no evidence of murder was ever found, and without further evidence, authorities dismissed the postcard as a hoax.
The string of incidents is a disturbing extension of criminal evidence going viral — as we saw with the notorious Steubenville rape case, and a number of other sex-assault cases, possibly including the current Vanderbilt University gang-rape trial. But unlike evidence of sex assault, which remains criminal evidence regardless of whether it appears on the Internet or is collected in a professional fashion, an anonymous murder confession on the Internet is, frustratingly, almost impossible to prosecute.
Of course, this doesn't apply to Cordle, whose YouTube confession came after he turned himself in to police. (His YouTube page states that no charges have been filed; no further explanation is offered.) Still, even if the criminal justice system is given evidence to work with, it's worth asking: what are the boundaries of confession?
The man Cordle killed was a father, photographer, and a veteran — his two daughters have made no official statement, but have been forced to watch their father's killer asking for absolution from the entire Internet less than three months after their dad's death.
When Cordle begs his audience to never drink and drive, the whole tape becomes almost commercial — and, if we read it as such, effective in its emotional punch. But when his grainy, pixellated face turns high-definition, about midway through the tape, the confession he offers up — "My name is Matthew Cordle and on June 22, 2013, I hit and killed Vincent Canzani. This video will act as my confession" — has a counter-intuitive element of (in some ways) absolving himself of the crime.
He's been praised by police authorities and a wide spectrum of YouTube commenters for his honesty — but Cordle's story isn't one that deserves any degree of respect. Though he states he suffers from depression, which apparently spurred his tendency to get "blackout" drunk, he also made the decision to drive after several drinks, drove the wrong way down a highway, and killed an innocent person.
Cordle notes that defense attorneys told him that he could "get away" with the crime, but Cordle decided to release the video anyway. Does he deserve praise for not evading the criminal justice system? And if he hasn't been slapped with any charges, exactly what life lesson is he symbolizing?
Perhaps the responsibility for giving these people a platform doesn't lie with the criminals, but with the platforms themselves: PostSecret, the Because I Said I Would site, Reddit. No one can stop criminal acts from occurring in a free society, but the question stands: must we make these people into celebrities? PostSecret's founder has come under fire for uploading the postcard, rather than simply handing it in to police — and the Because I Said I Would website generally posts respectable "confessions," like running a marathon in honor of one's deceased father. Reddit, whose users tracked down the location of the alleged murder and searched for a body, has a history of spreading gross misinformation: after the Boston Marathon, they incorrectly identified the bomber. The alleged bomber, a Brown student, then apparently committed suicide.
The entire issue feeds into the ever-evolving debate about the tension between privacy, security, and freedom of speech in the Internet era. President Obama said Wednesday that it appears existing laws aren't sufficient to handle the possibilities of omnipresent technology, and in this case, it certainly appears that the criminal justice system isn't equipped to deal with the cloak-and-dagger anonymity of Internet confessors. The culture of sharing online has reached newly bizarre levels, heightening the tension between freedom of speech and censorship. Whatever decisions policymakers and social platforms take on the issue will dictate the new norms for regulating this disturbing trend.