A 23-year-old man accused of killing four people inside a Markham, Ont., home told an online acquaintance months ago that he planned to kill his parents and go to jail, according to users of a gaming forum who dismissed the comments as a joke.
The messages highlight the difficulties in policing and monitoring online communities, where threatening and abusive language is so pervasive that real threats can go unnoticed, according to experts.
Menhaz Zaman was charged with four counts of first-degree murder this week. He was arrested Sunday after police were called to his home in the suburb north of Toronto.
York Regional Police will await a coroner’s postmortem report before confirming the victims’ identities and how they were killed, spokesman Andy Pattenden said in an e-mail.
In an interview with The Globe, Shamsu Zzaman said a family friend notified him Sunday night that his brother, Moniruz Zaman – Menhaz Zaman’s father – had been killed. He was found dead along with Menhaz Zaman’s mother, Momataz; sister, Malesa; and grandmother.
Menhaz Zaman was active in the online gaming community, according to users who said they communicated with him. A profile under the username “Menhaz” existed on the Discord platform and was active in the gaming discussion group Perfect World Void. “Menhaz” was Mr. Zaman’s online profile, according to users who said they had messaged him for years. The profile features a picture appearing to show Mr. Zaman alongside his digital avatar.
Four months before the deaths, “Menhaz” told another user of the forum he planned to kill his parents. The statement was not taken seriously, according to Maroon Ayoub, a moderator of the site, who lives in Israel.
On March 9, “Menhaz” wrote to another user in a private message: “Going to kill my parents and go to jail yo. … gonna miss u,” according to screenshots sent to The Globe.
Death threats and suicidal comments are not uncommon in gaming forums such as Perfect World Void. The user who received the messages was concerned, according to Mr. Ayoub, but didn’t report it.
Part of the challenge of these online websites is that users can be anonymous or pseudonymous, making it difficult to gauge if their intentions are serious, said Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist and McGill University professor who researches online and hacker culture.
Anonymity, combined with a community space, can embolden people who are “flirting with these ideas, but are slightly uncomfortable,” to take action, Prof. Coleman said, adding that this pattern is especially prominent in white-supremacist forums.
Discord made headlines in 2017, after it was revealed that white supremacists were using it to organize their “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Since it was founded four years ago, Discord has emerged as a go-to platform for gamers to connect through the application’s video, voice or chat service, which sees 315 million messages sent a day. Users can create chat spaces, called servers, and open them up to the broader Discord audience, or restrict the servers to select people.
According to the company’s 2018 Terms of Service, Discord “has no obligation to monitor these communication channels.” In a statement e-mailed to The Globe, Discord said it is working closely with law enforcement to provide assistance. “Our hearts go out to the family and friends of the victims.”
All users must adhere to the Terms of Service and Community Guidelines, according to a spokesperson, adding that violations are investigated and offending servers can be shut down and users banned.
The night of July 27, Mr. Ayoub said he and other users became alarmed when “Menhaz” began sending gruesome photos and explaining why he killed his parents. Mr. Ayoub said recipients of the messages contacted police shortly after receiving them.
In some of the messages, seen by The Globe, “Menhaz” expressed shame, saying he dropped out of university but was deceiving his parents into believing he was still attending and killed them so they wouldn’t find out. He said he had planned the killings for three years.
“Literally told my parents my uni[versity] graduation was July 28th,” the messages read. “I couldn’t have delayed it any longer.”
In the messages, “Menhaz” also said he would turn himself in.
Several users of the forum posted that Mr. Zaman seemed to make depressed and offensive comments in the weeks before the killings, but didn’t suspect he would kill.
Hyperbolic behaviours associated with these online spaces – whether it’s through comments, internet harassment or “trolling” – make it difficult to assess threats, said Brett Caraway, an assistant professor at the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology at the University of Toronto in Mississauga.
“It’s like an electronic bubble for you to rage in, where you don’t have to be immediately confronted with the person that you’re speaking to,” he said. “It’s not face-to-face, so I think the inhibitions that normally govern social behaviour are removed to some extent.”
These incidents point to a need for policy-makers to adopt a coherent approach to surveillance in online spaces, instead of “ad hoc, putting out fires," said Karen Eltis, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in internet law and hate speech.
“The role of policing cannot be attributed solely to these private companies,” she said. “Do we want to leave our constitutional values to Terms and Conditions?”