A certain kind of criminal pathology demands an audience — terrorism, public humiliation, bullying, even a variety of psychopathic murder. And since its inception, the internet has provided dark corners for deviance, even depravity. The democratisation of live video has led to the performance and dissemination of activity that raises disturbing questions for both law enforcement and public morality.
A few days ago, a 15-year-old girl was allegedly raped by four men in Chicago in the US and they broadcast the act using Facebook Live. Forty people watched the video, yet none reported the incident to the police or even to Facebook (it just takes a few clicks). In January, also in Chicago, four men were arrested for holding a mentally disabled man hostage and live streaming as they tortured him.
It is, of course, unfair to blame technology alone. Jack the Ripper sent letters to the press about his crimes in the 1880s, and his notoriety owes nothing to social media. However, the medium of dissemination can exacerbate existing patterns and faultlines of violence. The Islamic State has used the internet and social media for propaganda and recruitment, and Whatsapp messages and YouTube videos played a significant role in fanning the violence during the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013.
The latest incident in Chicago highlights the need for law enforcement to be on its toes when it comes to the dissemination of criminal content. It also points to the need for tech giants like Facebook (which owns WhatsApp) and Google to have greater filters. The recording and sharing of moments and thoughts, mundane and spectacular, is what social media is all about.
It must not, however, begin to normalise criminal behaviour. The fact that not one of the 40 people who watched the gangrape of a 15-year-old girl thought to report the incident displays a kind of voyeurism that is, hopefully, an aberration and not a lasting consequence of the change that the internet has brought to society.