5 things to know about crime broadcast on social media

All the world’s a stage in the digital age


The killing of a 74-year-old Cleveland man that was broadcast over Facebook is just the latest in a disturbing trend of crimes committed in front of a digital audience. Over the past several years, there has been an uptick in the use of social media to document heinous acts in progress. Here are five things to know about the darker side of services like Facebook Live.

1. From standoffs to police pursuits, criminals are documenting their acts online.

Among the usual, innocuous content like selfies and food photography, crime has become a troubling presence on social media.

In 2015, the brutal killing of a television reporter and cameraman during a live news broadcast was filmed by the perpetrator and posted on Twitter and Facebook after the gunman fled the scene.

A makeshift memorial sits along a fence Monday, April 17, 2017, near where Robert Godwin Sr., was killed in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Mike Householder)
A makeshift memorial sits along a fence Monday, April 17, 2017, near where Robert Godwin Sr., was killed in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Mike Householder)

In 2016, 23-year-old Korryn Gaines posted videos on Facebook and Instagram in the midst of a police standoff in which she barricaded herself inside her apartment while armed with a shotgun.

Earlier this year, the beating of a mentally disabled man in Chicago by four suspects was streamed live on Facebook.

There have also been multiple cases of drivers filming themselves as they evade police during high-speed pursuits.

This troubling trend is the reality of an increasingly connected world, where all it takes is the simple push of a button to share photos or video with the masses.

2. Does the existence of these tools influence criminal behavior?

The great debate over whether access to an audience influences criminal behavior has gone on for as long as news organizations have existed, but the rise of social media has created a relatively new angle to the theory.

In a paper presented at the American Psychological Association last year, researchers found that a high volume of discussion on Twitter about a mass shooting increased the probability of another mass shooting occurring shortly thereafter. While motive in these incidents can be hard to pin down, this research does add credibility to the idea that those seeking notoriety and fame are more likely to commit heinous acts in an era where sharing is only a click away. 

Raymond Surette, a criminal justice professor at the University of Central Florida, calls this phenomenon “performance crime.”

“The over-sharing that lies at the core of self-incriminating performances is an extension of the significance that social media have come to play culturally,” Surette wrote. “It is better to get your performance out there and be known than to be unknown in a celebrity culture, even if criminality is required.”

UC Davis law professor Elizabeth Joh told the New York Times:

“Any of these platforms — especially live ones — encourages users to perform. Should Facebook have a duty to rescue a crime victim? Should we, or is it O.K. for thousands or millions of people to watch a crime unfold without doing anything except sharing it?”

3. What are social media companies doing about the issue?

Thus far, the policing of content on these platforms can best be described as a work in progress. In all fairness, policing content on a website such as Facebook – where 510,000 comments are posted and 136,000 photos are uploaded every 60 seconds – is no small task. It took the company about two hours to take down footage of Robert Godwin’s murder. 

Earlier this week, CEO Mark Zuckerberg briefly mentioned the incident during the company’s annual developer conference:

"We have a lot of work, and we will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening," Zuckerberg said.

Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s VP of global operations, also issued a statement on the incident, saying the company would improve its procedures in order to stamp out similar content in the future.

“In addition to improving our reporting flows, we are constantly exploring ways that new technologies can help us make sure Facebook is a safe environment. Artificial intelligence, for example, plays an important part in this work, helping us prevent the videos from being reshared in their entirety,” Osofsky wrote. “We are also working on improving our review processes. Currently, thousands of people around the world review the millions of items that are reported to us every week in more than 40 languages. We prioritize reports with serious safety implications for our community, and are working on making that review process go even faster.”

Other services are also taking steps to combat violent or otherwise objectionable content on their services. Google and Twitter, for example, are now using artificial intelligence to wade through the massive volume of content uploaded to their websites.

4. Social media has been an investigative aid for police departments.

It probably goes without saying that the rise of documented crimes on social media is an investigative asset for police departments.

In 2015, an officer managed to track down a DUI suspect based on landmarks he picked out in a livesteamed video the offender posted on Periscope. In the same year, a teen was charged with murder after posting a selfie with the body of another teen to Snapchat.

5. It has also created investigative challenges.

But it hasn’t all been gravy. As much as they’ve worked together, police agencies and social media companies have also butt heads in the past.

Late last year, Twitter halted access to its user data for a law enforcement tool that allowed departments to monitor social media and detect potential crime.

In March, Facebook updated its instructions for developers, barring them from using its data for law enforcement surveillance purposes.

And earlier this month, Customs and Border Protection dropped a summons to unmask a Twitter account after the company filed a lawsuit.

Generally, Facebook has been cooperative with investigative requests. In the first six months of 2016, the company handed over data for 80 percent of the 23,854 requests they received from police agencies. And in the aforementioned Korryn Gaines case, police worked with Facebook and Instagram to temporarily deactivate her accounts, believing that her posts were distracting her from negotiations.

But there is still more work to be done, and both police agencies and social media companies need to collaborate in the road ahead. As social media continues to dominate our everyday lives, the rise of crime shared on these sites and how best to combat it is a thorny issue with no easy solutions. 

About the author

Cole Zercoe is the Associate Editor of PoliceOne, responsible for writing and editing news articles, original columns, product articles, and trade show coverage. From the latest police technologies and innovations to the emerging threats cops face in the digital age, his features focus on the complexity of policing in the modern world.

Contact Cole Zercoe

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