What’s an ex-con to do once they’re out from behind bars? Should they hide in the shadows, do charity work, hold down a normal nine-to-five? Nope. The obvious next move in today’s society is to become an influencer.
The retired football player O. J. Simpson is best known not for his athletic achievements but for his 1995 murder trial, in which he was accused, and widely suspected, of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman. Following the infamous line by his defense lawyer “If [the glove] doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” Simpson was found not guilty but was subsequently busted on a separate conviction, for robbery. Simpson spent nine years in prison, and was released from the Lovelock Correctional Center, in Nevada, in 2017.
Today, you might find mentions of Simpson in history books and documentaries. But you’re more likely to see him on TikTok. Now 75, one of America’s most infamous criminals is posting videos like your average bored Gen Z–er.
Within just a few weeks of setting up his account, with the handle @looseyjuicyy, Simpson amassed hundreds of thousands of followers. (Today, that number is around 280,000.) In one video, he replied to a user’s question about whether he is guilty (presumably of the double murder) with “Who knows. I guess we’ll wait and see.” When another user asked if Simpson thinks Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer who got life in prison for 17 murders, is guilty, he responded, “I am not qualified to say, if the guy did or didn’t do it.” Simpson even went so far as to threaten one user, commenting that they would “receive the consequences” if they did not remove a video that discussed the details of Simpson’s trial.
He also seems to be enjoying TikTok’s playful filters. In one video, Simpson opted for a filter that makes it look like the user is playing in the N.F.L., which he captioned “These filters got me dead,” and helpfully hashtagged #ojsimpson.
Now 75, one of America’s most infamous criminals is posting videos like your average bored Gen Z–er.
Simpson isn’t the only ex-con turning his past brushes with the law into wit online—so is Amanda Knox. The Seattle native famously spent nearly four years in an Italian prison after she was convicted, along with her then boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, of the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, during a study-abroad college program in Perugia. Having originally been sentenced to serve 26 years, Knox was freed in 2011 and exonerated four years later. Rudy Guede, a burglar, was eventually found guilty of the crime.
Since then Knox, now 35, has made repeated comments on social media about the incident. During the 2020 election, Knox tweeted, “Whatever happens, the next four years can’t be as bad as that four-year study abroad I did in Italy, right?” More recently, when a story about a student bemoaning her year abroad in Italy went viral, Knox re-tweeted it with the caption “Girl, what are you talking about? Studying abroad is awesome!”
Then there is Anna “Delvey” Sorokin, who famously served prison time for duping New York’s elite. While the fraudster was serving her sentence, her Instagram followership shot up from under 150,000 to over a million. (Her story also inspired Shonda Rhimes’s Netflix series Inventing Anna.) Now Sorokin, who is out of jail and living in New York, uses the platform to advertise her art and NFT projects. An original drawing will set you back as much as $25,000; works called Run It Again and Not Guilty were posted on her account as available at the time of publication.
Ex-cons can even be found strutting their stuff on Cameo, a Web site where users can pay to have a celebrity record a video message of their choice. One of the most popular Cameo subjects last year was Simon Leviev, the star of Netflix’s Tinder Swindler documentary, who was arrested twice and served five months in an Israeli jail. This was a series entirely focused on Leviev’s criminal and abusive behavior, and yet people are spending real cash to have him reference the lines he used to defraud and bully women, for their ironic happy-birthday messages.
It all comes down to the fact that we, the public, are obsessed with crimes and the people behind them. It’s why they make up so many of the shows we watch and the books we read. Many of us can think of nothing more relaxing than settling down with a glass of red wine and a gory murder podcast.
During the 2020 election, Amanda Knox tweeted, “Whatever happens, the next four years can’t be as bad as that four-year study abroad I did in Italy, right?”
The danger comes when we move from platforming stories to platforming real-life people.
When Knox tweets her jokes, the Internet is divided between laughing—she “won the internet for the day”—and cringing, given that a girl died in the incident. Knox herself has always defended her right to make light of her history, claiming she’s allowed to joke about her own trauma, and I’m inclined to agree with her. The process of being wrongfully imprisoned upturned her entire life, and she should be allowed some dark humor about it, which tends to be more at her own expense than anyone else’s.
People buying cameos off of criminals, meanwhile, feels pretty clearly like an immoral act. But when it comes to social media, the line becomes murkier.
Unlike his nearly 900,000-follower-strong Twitter account, Simpson’s TikTok account isn’t verified, so it’s not actually clear if the account belongs to the man himself or is an illusion created from old videos or deep-fake technology; either way, his followers believe it’s real, and follow him because of it.
We are fascinated by ex-cons in a macabre way, so we want to consume their content. But just because following an account doesn’t cost us anything, that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. When you follow a person or watch their videos, it gives them power (and, often, money). So, despite our obsession, we should think carefully about whether we’re happy putting change in certain people’s pockets.
A lot of it comes down to whether you think the ex-con in question is innocent (which is why I will follow Knox on social media but not Simpson). So if you happen to see a dodgy figure pop up on your For You page, think twice before you engage with it. If you’d be scared for them to follow you in real life, don’t follow them on social.
Flora Gill is a London-based writer