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Is Magnotta the avatar of online alienation? France thinks so

He may be languishing in a 1.5-metre Berlin jail cell awaiting deportation back to Canada, but Montreal dismemberment-murder suspect Luka Magnotta is just beginning to attract attention in the European capitals that were the venues of his nine-day flight from justice.

In Berlin, his alleged crimes have quickly faded from public attention, as his capture occurred at almost the same time as crime involving a man who beheaded his wife in front of their six children in the central Berlin neighbourhood of Kreuzberg, not far from the Internet café where Mr. Magnotta was caught by police while looking at pornographic pictures of himself.

In Paris, on the other hand, the cultural elite have begun to take notice of the bizarre figure who passed through their midst last week, and conclude that he is a perfect illustration of their ideas about the alienating and distorting nature of the Internet. Like a character from one of Michel Houellebecq's French novels, Mr. Magnotta appears to be the ultimate example of the atomizing, de-personalizing nature of online life.

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Under the banner headline "The assassin of the Facebook generation," the Paris newspaper Le Figaro launched this theme on Wednesday with an essay by cultural critic Marc de Boni.

Without the web, "the butcher of Montreal would not exist," Mr. de Boni concludes. "This killer character is a narcissistic and deviant avatar, one of many virtual identities he invented in order to create celebrity."

What else do you say about an alleged psychotic killer who has 70 Facebook accounts and who is suspected of filming the dismemberment and possible cannibalistic attack on student Lin Jun, which somehow attracted 600 "likes" on the Facebook page where it was originally posted?

After all, Mr. de Boni notes, the alleged killer appears to have searched for the most popular genres on the Internet – gory videos, low-rent porn, Facebook narcissism – and thrust himself into their midst in a grotesque, hyperbolically attention-seeking way.

Even the most quintessential and popular of Internet memes, the LOL-cat (an ironic picture of a kitten) appears to have been hijacked by Mr. Magnotta: His initial source of media infamy, the videos in which he killed kittens using snakes and plastic bags, weren't just fodder for police and animal-welfare investigations, but were specifically modelled after the Internet-kitten craze.

And Mr. Magnotta seemed to be not so much a unique individual as a pastiche of images from Hollywood, pornography and the Internet. Among his many other avatars and Internet identities was "Catherine Tramwell," the name of Sharon Stone's psycho-killer character in Basic Instinct – a movie whose poses and lines he allegedly mimicked in the video, right down to the use of an ice pick. In the video, the song True Faith  by the 1980s British group New Order plays in the background, the same music that is played in the movie American Psycho.

"Through these," Mr. de Boni writes, "he knows he can arouse the curiosity of a class of heavy Internet users, quick to see everything and share everything."

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In most European countries, Mr. Magnotta is known in the media as the "porn-star killer," even though it has become apparent that he didn't star in any pornography, notwithstanding the grossly pornographic nature of his own apparent crimes.

But the French seem poised to dub him the "Facebook assassin," and on a continent where the Web is still treated with suspicion and is subject to a much higher degree of government regulation, Mr. Magnotta may have become the avatar of a wider insecurity.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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