There is no way to avoid social media. Even if you’re not a regular user of a particular platform, you’re still familiar with or can recognize the role they play in modern society. They have fundamentally changed the way relationships are built and maintained, and now play a key role in journalism and current events.
But there’s an interesting and rather horrifying phenomenon that social media also seems to provide to some users: a platform from which to broadcast crimes.
Don’t get me wrong- I love the broadcast nature of social media. It’s insane to think about how, in just the last decade, creators and individuals now have the power to reach thousands and even millions of people without needing to dip into traditional mainstream rivers. We’ve all witnessed how mainstream media and corporations can really fuck things up, so to be able to remove the pressures of advertisers and/or expectations for results and audience numbers has brought about an unprecedented level of content and access. Every social media platform has desperately sought to integrate new broadcasting methods, searching for processes to make it easier to attract more users. But this has lead to a slew of outrageous activities and crimes being shared almost instantaneously online.
It used to be considered stupid to record and post your crimes alone. Remember that milk jug prank from a few years ago? Three teenagers went around supermarkets throwing gallon jugs of milk and juice around supermarkets and pretending to be injured as a result. They ended up getting charged with multiple counts of destruction of property and disorderly conduct. I sat at my desk and wondered what kind of special idiot shares video evidence of themselves breaking the law? But it seems every other day now, we’re reading headlines latest crime and/or death involving social media. There’s everything from deaths from attempted selfies to Snapchat stunts gone wrong to domestic abuse over a Facebook relationship status change. There is an overwhelming amount to discuss, but the ones grabbing attention most recently seem to be incidents involving the live streaming of crimes.
By now, we’re all familiar with the tragic death of Robert Goodwin Sr, where Steve Stephens randomly shot Goodwin while streaming live on Facebook. Or 13-year-old Malachi Hemphill accidentally shooting himself on Instagram Live. More recently, Wuttisan Wongtalay in Thailand streamed himself killing his baby daughter in an abandoned hotel on Facebook- and the video remained on the man’s Facebook page for almost 24 hours. Thailand police had to contact Facebook about the video, at which point it was promptly removed. Unfortunately, it is still being widely distributed on other sites.
So here’s the million dollar question: does social media perpetuate violent crime?
ABC News covered a story where they interviewed a Chicago resident that showed how social media sites were being used by gang members to promote violence. Rival gangs were using social media to make threats, ‘call out’ individuals, and recruit members. Their online activity led to real confrontations, shootings, and very real murders. On sites like World Star Hip Hop and YouTube, fight compilation video searches and subsequent uploads have risen dramatically. You can even google search the “best fight compilation videos” by month and week.
The connection between those online discussions and subsequent actions can be easily linked. “Social media becomes a player here because it becomes a low barrier of entry. Many people can access it,” Dr. Sheryl Kennedy Haydel said, a mass communication professor at Xavier University. “When murder happens, and it’s not being filmed on social media, it, unfortunately, it doesn’t take center stage. But when it’s being used by social media, it takes on a life of its own.”
Then you have Marina Alexeevna Lonina, who was recently indicted for broadcasting the rape of her 17-year-old friend by Lonina’s boyfriend, Raymond Boyd Gates. Prosecutor Ron O’Brien successfully argued his point that Lonina became obsessed with the large audience and the ‘likes’ she was receiving on Periscope with the broadcast. Playing into the idea of collecting an audience, two teen girls posed mid-beating to take selfies and Snapchat their murdering of a 39-year-old woman. She died of more than 100 injuries from everyday objects like a shovel, a TV, and a printer. The 13-year-old and 14-year old girls even left the crime scene, only to later return to make sure she was dead. And Brazilian police have identified several of the 33 men who mass raped a teenage girl and then posted videos and photos on Twitter. The victim was drugged by her boyfriend, woke up the next day naked and bleeding and didn’t even realize what happened until she was made aware of the evidence making its way across social media. Before Twitter removed the material, some tweets and videos had amassed as many as 500 likes and more than 100 comments shaming and blaming the victim.
Those are just some of the results from a preliminary search. There are even darker crimes being committed as of late. One rather disturbing new trend is a new game called ‘Blue Whale.' Already linked to 130 deaths in Russia, it’s believed a group administrator assigns daily tasks to members of the social media group, which they must complete over 50 days. The tasks include anything from watching horror movies, waking up at unusual hours (or staying up for unusual hours), and self-harming. The idea is that the tasks gradually get more extreme until the 50th day, when the administrators and other members of the group instruct the vulnerable teenagers to commit suicide. The game is conducted across multiple social media platforms. Although the game has not formally been proven to be directly responsible for any deaths, the 6 month investigation of the 130 deaths in Russia revealed that almost all the adolescents who committed suicide were members and online friends in the same internet groups. In the latest suicide, 15-year-old Yulia Konstantinova posted a photo of a blue whale with the caption “End” on her social media pages before jumping from the roof of a 14-storey apartment block.
Continual exposure to violence can have adverse effects on youth. It’s something that’s been shouted from the rooftops for decades, with meta-analyses of these unhealthy effects. They’ve shown that youth who view media-violence on a regular basis are more likely to exhibit antisocial behavior, ranging from imitative violent behavior with toys to criminal violence, acceptance of violent behavior, increased feelings of hostility, and desensitization towards violent behavior. Not everyone who views violence through media exhibits these characteristics, but enough do that it is an accepted contributing factor to certain personality and behavioral issues among psychologists. So what happens when violence leaks into the platforms that 80% of people use before even brushing their teeth in the morning?
A lot of this is linked to the effects of social media in general. According to Sherry Turkle, author of ‘Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,' social media provides our brains with something we need on a primal level: “seeking behavior.” “We’re born hunter-gatherers,” Turkle says, “And in a way, a Google search is like going out and finding a deer to bring home. It activates that instinct and gives you an emotional buzz.” As a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Turkle disagrees with the assessment that social media and technology are addictive. She describes social media as “seductive,” in that we are not only passively searching Google or watching TV, but that we are able to readily interact with other social media users.
“It’s a perfect storm,” Turkle says, “Our brains crave constant stimulation, and these devices allow you to skip over waiting and go straight to the scintillating sound bites...There’s less tolerance for the boring bits in life as a result. Part of my fieldwork is to stand at stop signs and watch what happens in cars. The moment people stop, they reach for their phones. They can’t be alone with their thoughts. Parents need to show kids that there’s no need to panic if you’re without your phone. If you don’t teach children that it’s OK to be alone, they’ll only know how to be lonely.”
And there’s the meal ticket. With the prevalence of social media platforms, the fear of missing out (FOMO) has permeated almost every social interaction. This isn’t to say that social media isn’t a great way to stay in touch with friends and family, because it is, but that doesn’t mean you should live your entire social life online. Many people do, because online there are tangible numbers and results for your interactions. Between likes, comments, views- it’s easy to keep track of your social life through built-in numbers. And it seems to be very easy for people to get caught up in these numbers, constantly seeking to become “viral” with millions of viewers or followers. With the allure of becoming an internet star with something as simple as a saying “Cash me ousside” with a heavy accent and getting endorsements and TV time, impressionable youth are constantly seeking stimulating activities and recording everything for that one moment that can become the latest meme or viral video. A simply post can make an impact that lasts forever.
“Social media makes everything instant,” Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner says. “I can assure you 25 years ago that no one saw that picture of the young man who was laying on the sidewalk that was on Facebook. No one could see that.”
In that vein, social media has shifted the way people view law enforcement. Social media posts pertaining to police behavior have skyrocketed. On the one hand, it’s helped keep police forces accountable for questionable and unprovoked actions, but on the other, it’s created tense and volatile environments during interactions with certain populations. And then you have the recordings of protests and ‘citizen journalism’ with both beneficial and detrimental effects that are too vast to explore in just one article.
There’s another aspect to this social media and violent crime equation. There are thousands of people on social media, and with willing participants and immeasurable reach, criminals are using social media to help them commit violent offenses. Police say that social media makes it easier for criminals to groom victims and locate potential targets, especially since most default settings on social media posts are public. Given the notoriety associated with all the situations listed above, many people are constantly searching for a way to be involved. It’s traffic rubbernecking on a global scale.
So does social media perpetuate violent crime? It isn’t a simple yes or no question. In the same vein of blaming inanimate objects for a decision made by a person, you can’t lay all responsibility on any social media platform. Shitty people are always going to be shitty people. It’s just that now we have multiple, easy ways to not only see how shitty people are being, but multiple ways to participate or encourage it for some laughs. I mean, reality TV is still one of the most popular genres on television despite the fact that everyone knows it’s nothing close to reality. But thousands of people tune in to watch people react in ridiculous ways to contrived situations for their own entertainment, and things have to get more and more outrageous to compete for eyeballs and views. I think that’s the same trend in social media and streaming violent crimes- people want to shock others, want to be the center of the latest controversy. It provides a sense of power and authority, and in that instant, they know they’re not missing out on anything more exciting. They become the ‘talk of the town’ for having access to brand new information- hell, I just wrote over 1000 words discussing this.
In its humble beginnings, social media and networking were fun, new ways of chatting and catching up with friends and business people, but it’s evolved into an ongoing reality television platform. So no, I don’t think social media perpetuates violent crimes; it provides an interactive audience of millions quickly, and in that sense, it becomes seductive enough for users to actively seek out situations to gain that audience. But violence doesn’t go away if social media does. It can’t be resolved by limiting the internet or any of these platforms, so it cannot be the held responsible for violence either. We just need to figure out how to educate and encourage the healthier use of it.