“Would your level of disgust change?” Accounting for variant reactions to fatal violence against women on social media

Published date01 November 2023
AuthorPaul Bleakley
Date01 November 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Criminology & Criminal Justice
2023, Vol. 23(5) 845 –860
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/17488958221105155
“Would your level of disgust
change?” Accounting for
variant reactions to fatal
violence against women on
social media
Paul Bleakley
University of New Haven, USA
The murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, occurring in similar contexts in London over
the course of 2021, prompted renewed public discourse around violence against women and
the nature of stranger-perpetrated murder of women in British society. It also provided the
opportunity to analyze our responses to such crimes as a community and, in particular, our
expectations and assumptions about who is committing fatal violence against women. In this
study, Facebook comments (n = 414) pertaining to the first identification of the alleged murderers
in each of the above cases were analyzed for sentiment. This analysis revealed major differences
in the levels of shock and/or surprise at Everard’s murderer (a police officer) being identified,
compared with Nessa’s alleged killer (a migrant). The article assesses the divergent responses in
each case and explores the reasons that allegations of migrant-committed crime appear to attract
significantly lower rates of resistance than allegations of police crime.
Migrant, police crime, sentiment analysis, social media, violence against women
For many people, and for a variety of valid reasons, the 2-year period of 2020/2021 will
be remembered as a time of great upheaval. The catastrophic global impact of the
COVID-19 pandemic aside, this period was also characterized by the public interroga-
tion of race, power, and colonization raised by the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests
and, in the United Kingdom, by the complicated arrival of the oft-delayed “Brexit”
Corresponding author:
Paul Bleakley, University of New Haven, 300 Boston Post Road, West Haven, CT 06516-1916, USA.
Email: pbleakley@newhaven.edu
1105155CRJ0010.1177/17488958221105155Criminology & Criminal JusticeBleakley
846 Criminology & Criminal Justice 23(5)
withdrawal from the European Union (Raymen et al., 2021). Set against this backdrop,
in March 2021 yet another tragic event occurred that resonated with a significant cross-
section of the British public and, especially, the nation’s women: as she was walking
home from a friend’s home in the south London district of Clapham on 3 March 2021,
33-year-old Sarah Everard vanished. Six days later, Wayne Couzens—a 48-year-old
serving officer with the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS)—was arrested and, later,
charged with kidnapping and murdering Everard. He later pleaded guilty to charges
including kidnap, rape, and murder and was sentenced on 30 September 2021 to a whole
life term in prison (Dodd, 2021). Everard’s murder sparked widespread discussion in
the United Kingdom around the safety of women and, specifically, the impact of gen-
dered violence in society. The murder also led to a vigil on Clapham Common, near
where Everard disappeared, on 13 March 2021, which garnered critical attention after
being aggressively dispersed by MPS officers, just days after one of their own was
arrested in connection with Everard’s death (Graham-Harrison, 2021).
Several months after Everard’s murder, the specter of violence against women (VAW)
was reawakened as a result of the murder of 28-year-old teacher Sabina Nessa on 17
September 2021. Nessa was killed by 36-year-old Koci Selamaj in a park in south-east
London, in circumstances that mirrored Everard’s death earlier in 2021 (Kwai, 2021). As
with Everard, Nessa’s murder prompted discussion of women’s safety in the United
Kingdom, and her accused killer became the focal point for robust public discourse
around VAW. However, while the context of Nessa’s death was unquestionably analo-
gous to Everard’s murder, public commentary on Selamaj attracted particular attention
for a distinct reason: just as the rhetoric around Couzens was centered on his role as a
serving police officer, discussion around Selamaj’s (then) alleged crimes was focused on
his identity as an Albanian migrant residing in the United Kingdom (Thorburn, 2021).
Drawing on the conceptual lens of symbolic interactionism and (particularly) social
role theory, this research aims to analyze the contours of public response through a con-
tent analysis of initial reactions on Facebook, via posts from a variety of news agencies
in which the identity characteristics of the alleged murderers (police officer and migrant)
were revealed for the first time to the public. Analyzing the comments across five articles
pertaining to Couzens and Selamaj, posted by five news sources of diverse ideological
and/or political persuasion, over 400 unique responses were able to be assessed through
sentiment analysis. This sentiment analysis revealed a far greater defensive posture from
the public in its reaction to Couzens being named as Everard’s alleged killer when com-
pared to the identification of the migrant, Selamaj. Although the rate of negative com-
ments in relation to Couzens’ role as a police officer was generally comparable to those
regarding Selamaj’s status as a migrant, the number of comments doubting Couzens’
guilt were 3.5 times higher than those registered for Selamaj.
Furthermore, the sentiment analysis also accounted for Facebook comments which
were neither positive or negative about role status, but nevertheless expressed shock or
surprise at the fact that (a) a police officer or (b) a migrant would commit a crime such
as the murder of Everard or Nessa. In this criterion, perhaps the most obvious result of
the sentiment analysis was recorded: while 19% of comments about Couzens registered
shock or surprise that a police officer would be involved in murder, not a single comment
regarding Selamaj expressed the same reaction in relation to his migrant status. This

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