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Sex, murder and the outbreak of moral panic

Globe and Mail Update

A good panic doesn't just come out of nowhere. Sure, it seems effortless in the moment – the worried headlines, the nervous commentators, the lunchroom buzz – but really, it takes years of preparation to work up phobias that can be released on a moment's notice. Take the swine flu that's got everyone so jumpy this week. Pandemics loom large in the public imagination when it comes to apocalypse scenarios, right up there with having our robotic servants turn on us. We wouldn't be so worried that the flu would be the end of us if we hadn't been looking askance at every dead bird since the summer of SARS. This is one well-rehearsed freak-out.

In a way, the same can be said for the “Craigslist killer” story that bumped the swine flu from the news (and none too soon). The label refers to one Philip Markoff, a 23-year-old Boston medical student who is charged with the murder of a woman who had posted an erotic ad on Craigslist. Markoff allegedly answered her ad, later corresponding with her over e-mail and cellphone.It's hard to pin down exactly why the “Craigslist killer” nickname stuck, but it did. Maybe it's our curious affinity for giving murderers the same kind of handles we give superheroes. Maybe it's the alliterative way that “the Craigslist killer” rolls off the tongue; it's certainly more assonant than “The Craigslist, then E-mail and Cellphone Killer.” But judging by the way the case sparked a moral panic about Craigslist itself, the ready association people drew between the two words seems more than just phonetic.

The copious coverage that followed seemed to feature almost as many screenshots of Craigslist as they did pictures of the suspect himself. Columnists sounded off about the Internet's dark corners. Local TV news squads took to the streets, filming passersby as they shook their heads and vowed they'd never answer an ad from those creeps online.

And then there was a bizarre piece on ABC's Nightline, in which anchor Martin Bashir perched on the edge of founder Craig Newmark's desk and demanded to know whether Newmark is a “law-abiding citizen of America,” and if so, why he's facilitating prostitution by allowing naughty ads on his website.

Newmark mumbled a sort of uncategorical non-denial, but he wasn't lacking for defenders. It didn't take long for people to start pointing out the patently obvious: There is nothing about Craigslist that contributed to this crime. Connecting Craigslist to the actions of someone who answers an ad is as silly as blaming a newspaper for the actions of someone who answered an ad and did something terrible. The prudish can get worked up about the fact that Craigslist runs plenty of thinly veiled ads from prostitutes – but here, that's tantamount to blaming the victim: She advertised, therefore she was asking for it.

But just like any other outbreak of hysteria, this didn't come from nowhere. The Craigslist moral panic had been brewing out of sight, waiting for its moment to erupt. It's tempting to write this off as another case of semi-informed Internet phobia – remember the moral panic over MySpace, which was said to be full of child predators? – but while there's no connection between Craigslist and the crime, it does shoulder responsibility for the panic.

Craigslist has always walked a fine line between anarchy and grungy respectability. It made its name as the under-moderated, anything-goes website. Craig Newmark has curated an image for himself as a disinterested broker whose motivations are neither corporate, commercial nor moral. He's just a guy named Craig, see, and he's got this list, and he wants to help people connect – that's his shtick.

There's something disconcerting about Craigslist's amoral nature. The company seems to float above the mores of commerce and law. It eviscerated the classified-advertising market that supported the newspaper business, but didn't keep most of the proceeds for itself. Newmark is said to make a pretty penny, but he's not selling the site for the usual Silicon Valley billions. Instead, he gives most of its services away for free.

And the laissez-faire nature of those services helped make him. The fact that those who would exchange sex for cash are among the millions who advertise on Craigslist is probably more shocking to people who don't live in cities where alt-weekly newspapers run porny ads for escort services all the time. But even for the hardened, Craigslist occasionally comes out with something truly eye-popping: I vividly recall discovering shelter-for-sex ads on Craigslist after Katrina hit New Orleans.

The libertine act comes at a price. Craigslist is a pile of contradictions that nobody knows quite how to read. It's not bound by the rules of a corporation trying to look good or a non-profit trying to do good, and it's riddled with salaciousness.

It's a great formula, but all it took was a scandalous news story that involved some possible combination of sex, a murder and Craigslist, and everybody's worst assumptions about the site seemed to have been realized. It didn't matter that the shoe, as it were, didn't fit. Craigslist has been plaguing the Internet with diffuse anxiety for years, even as we enjoyed its services. I can't feel too bad for Craig and his list, this week. It's no fair that they got stuck with the “Craigslist killer.” But this is a panic that was waiting to happen.

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