Facebook Group Used by Virginia Stabbing Victim Nicole Lovell Has Disappeared

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Nicole Lovell, believed to have been killed by a Virginia Tech student, was a member of the now-offline controversial Facebook group "Teen Dating and Flirting." Teen Dating and Flirting/Facebook

On New Year's Day, 13-year-old Nicole Lovell reportedly posted a photo of herself in the Facebook group Teen Dating and Flirting, along with the question: "Cute or nah?" The post apparently garnered 304 responses, most of which were mean-spirited.

Even after the Blacksburg, Virginia, teenager's disappearance and murder in late January, the members of that Facebook group continued to cyberbully Lovell. That is until Tuesday afternoon, when the group went offline, just after Virginia Tech students David Eisenhauer, 18, and Natalie Marie Keepers, 19, were charged with involvement in Lovell's death.

"No dead people allowed!" one group member commented on a post about Lovell, hours before the group's page disappeared from Facebook. Another member, using expletives, wrote that the killing was justified because of the victim's appearance.

That post was the only one in the Facebook group's final 24 hours that mentioned Lovell or the widespread media attention that the group had received in recent days. In fact, up until the shutdown, traffic on the group page was typical, with more than 100 posts in the past day.

In the aftermath of Lovell's death, groups such as Help Save the Next Girl and Justice for Children Without Voices asked Facebook to remove the group.

A Facebook representative tells Newsweek that the social network does not comment on specific cases or Facebook groups, and directed Newsweek to the social network's community standards. Because there are 1.55 billion Facebook users and millions of Facebook groups, the representative says, the company only becomes aware of potentially problematic content if a user reports that content. A group can be disabled for repeat violations, the representative adds.

Those community standards state that the company reviews reports of threatening language and removes credible threats of physical harm to individuals. "We don't tolerate bullying or harassment," it states, adding that users are allowed to speak freely on "matters and people of public interest," but the company will "remove content that appears to purposefully target private individuals with the intention of degrading or shaming them."

Facebook will also "remove content that threatens or promotes sexual violence or exploitation," including when it involves minors. It also restricts images that feature nudity and hate speech.

Justice for Children Without Voices says it had reported the group for containing nudity and that Facebook confirmed that it removed the group.

It is possible that Lovell and Eisenhauer met through Teen Dating and Flirting or through another social media platform, according to reports. Lovell's Facebook account was still listed as a member of the group. Hours before the shutdown, Eisenhauer did not appear to be a member.

As of early Tuesday, the Teen Dating and Flirting group had more than 18,000 members. Though it is difficult to tell who was truly behind the Facebook accounts of the members, users claimed to come from around the world, as far apart as France, Australia, Switzerland and Indonesia. A typical post featured a selfie and a brief demand: "Kik me" (referring to the instant messenger application); "Rate me"; "Add me"; and occasionally, "Send nudes." Scantily clad or pornographic images were numerous, and spam-like messages directed members to additional groups with names such as Free Sugar Daddy Sites.

One member had written on Tuesday: "Any girls here.need a gf.age of 16 or 17.i am 17 and will be 18 next month.anyone????doesnt care ur looks or size." Someone with an ambiguous profile name and picture responded. The two members became Facebook friends.

In December, Brekwan Oliver posted, "This group did not have an active admin for a long time. We are looking for someone who can take charge of the group and clean the group of filth and racism. We need some order in this group."

Oliver, who says he is 18, tells Newsweek in a Facebook message that he joined Teen Dating and Flirting last fall to make friends, and that he is unaware of how the group started or who ran it. He also says he only started noticing problematic content about a month ago.

"I was a concerned member of the group," he says. "The members started to be racist."

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Two Virginia Tech students, including David Eisenhauer, have been charged in connection with Nicole Lovell's death. REUTERS/Montgomery County Sheriff's Office/Handout via Reuters

It is a well-known problem that law enforcement and parents face difficulty keeping up with changing technology and how young people access and it.

"We're seeing more of these kind of alternate environments where individuals are interacting. Even on a place like Facebook, which is a fairly mainstream social media site, they're finding little sort of closets, places to hang out," says Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and a criminal justice professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

"This is the problem with these mainstream sites," he adds. "You look at something like YouTube, which has a lot of great educational content and parents want their kids to have access to stuff, but there's a dark side too where there's pornography. Same thing with Instagram."

Patchin says that young people sometimes stumble upon the darker corners of social media or deliberately seek them out—especially vulnerable teens. "We definitely see a trend of teens...who are interacting in anonymous environments, sort of looking for validation or for others to comment on them and it does get dark very quickly," he says, adding that sometimes teens even make fake social media accounts in order to leave negative comments about themselves.

"These are people who are crying out for help one way or another, and I think they're being overlooked because they're in these hidden areas," he adds.

Parents are now beginning to fight tech with tech, as a slew of smartphone apps are now available to help them track how their children use phones. TeenSafe, for example, lets parents monitor their child's text messages (including deleted ones), phone calls, social media use, Internet browsing history and location. It claims to have more than 1 million parent users.

According to a January Pew Research Center study of how parents monitor their teens' use of technology, 94 percent of parents surveyed said they talk to their teens about appropriate Web sharing. Thirty-nine percent said they block, filter or monitor their child's online activities.

Services such as TeenSafe also enable parents to monitor third-party apps, such as Kik Messenger, which claims to have 240 million users. According to its website, more than 40 percent of American teens use the messenger.

Lovell and Eisenhauer are believed to have communicated through Kik, the victim's friend told The New York Times. And this isn't the first time that Kik has come under scrutiny for its apparent use in such a situation.

A Kik representative did not respond to Newsweek's request for comment. However, the company said in a statement in 2014, "If we are contacted by law enforcement, or if something is reported to us by one of our users, Kik has policies and processes in place to help us respond in the best way possible."

Reacting to the news that the Facebook group Lovell used was no longer online, Misty Staples, founder of Justice for Children Without Voices, says, "This is one down. We've got thousands more to go. Unfortunately, when one gets shut down, 10 more pop up. Our goal is to keep reporting these pages." She adds, "We need to start monitoring our children better, not just as parents but as a society."

Eisenhauer and Keepers are reportedly being held in jail without bond. They appeared in court yesterday and are next scheduled to appear March 28. Lovell reportedly died on or around January 27, by stabbing. Her body was recovered January 30.

"I believe the truth will set me free," Eisenhauer has said.

Facebook Group Used by Virginia Stabbing Victim Nicole Lovell Has Disappeared | U.S.