By Bethany Peterson
On Jan. 10, a Cook County judge ordered two 15-year-old boys to register as sex offenders and complete five years of probation for their involvement in the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl. Police and legal authorities had no trouble identifying them as perpetrators—they had a Facebook video of the entire incident.
A live-stream of the assault was broadcast live on facebook back in March. The video depicted a brutal gang rape involving six boys. A third boy has been arrested, and his case is pending. For the others, police investigations continue.
This video is only one in a long list of horrific crimes broadcast for others to watch over the internet. Three men in Sweden were caught by police after they live-streamed their rape of a young woman on Facebook from her apartment. Four men were arrested after they posted a video of themselves attacking a mentally disabled man in Chicago. A 16 year old boy live-tweeted bomb threats he was making to schools in Ottawa, Canada for weeks before police confronted him. The list goes on.
The digital age has paved the way for a new criminal trend: the “performance crime,” or a crime committed with the intention of having an audience, especially when “created for distribution via social media,” defined Criminal Justice Professor Ray Surette. “Offenders posting pre-crime confessions, videos of themselves committing offences, and post-crime footage holding evidence and bragging about their criminal acts” are all characteristics common to performance crimes.
Most experts blame the rise of social media for the explosion of performance crime in the 21st century; some even point to performance crimes as a logical progression of social media culture.
“There’s a snapshot culture. If we come across something extraordinary it doesn’t count unless we’ve filmed it or taken a picture. It becomes an instinct,” explained Expert Sveinung Sandberg, “so then when you commit a violent crime or a rape the same instinct might strike you. You just grab for the phone and film it without thinking about the consequences.”
Social Expert at M&R Marketing Matthew Michael agrees. “Just the viral nature of social media in general just kind of gives them the, just the added ego of being able to draw a larger audience for what they’re doing,” he added.
Although the performance crime allows authorities to identify and intervene in criminal acts, it also poses new questions about social media accountability.
According to NPR, around 40 people watched the Facebook live-stream of the gang rape, yet none of them reported the crime to authorities. Some are calling for these viewers to be held legally responsible for failing to take action on the “scene” of a crime.
“We’ve seen a couple acts in [Chicago] now in the last few months involving social media, and it just disgusts me that people would look at those videos and not pick up the phone and dial 911,” explained Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, “it makes you wonder, where are we going, what are we doing as a society?”
Legal experts say that it is difficult to charge the viewers. Criminal Defense Attorney Stephanie Lacambra explained that not only do prosecutors have to prove that the alleged viewer actually watched the video, but they also must show that the viewer knew what they were watching was real, and intentionally chose to do nothing.
As social media develops, authorities grapple with complex questions about performance crime, as the culture of the online world continues to bleed into all aspects of society, including the criminal justice system.