The young people broadcasting their crimes on social media

Where does the instinct to publicly document a rape or murder come from? And what can these sites do about it? 

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Shortly after Stanford student Brock Turner was arrested for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, a strange message popped up on his phone. It read “WHOS TIT IS THAT [sic]” and arrived through an app called GroupMe.

The police spotted and photographed the message notification, and obtained a search warrant to investigate further. Detectives combed through Turner’s phone, but could no longer see the text or any photo it might have been referring to. However, Blake Bolton, a passerby who witnessed the attack, later told investigators that he had seen a man standing over the victim holding a phone, which had “a bright light pointed in the direction of the female”.

GroupMe is a messaging app which, crucially for Turner, sends messages and photos which are not stored on the phone but on the app’s servers. This means they can be deleted remotely at any time by any member of the group. It’s not clear that this is why Turner chose this particular app to share photos of his victim (or, indeed, who deleted the messages) but if the story is true, one thing is certain: he, like a growing roster of others who have committed crimes, had an urge to share evidence of his actions on social media.

A crime shared

The alleged photo-taking was key to Turner’s case, because it implies that he knew his victim was unconscious, and that he was taking pleasure in treating her as little more than an object. It runs counter to the judge’s reasoning for Turner’s light sentence: that he had a good character and no previous convictions, and was led astray by drinking too much. The photo and its sharing implies something dark, pre-meditated and voyeuristic in the attack, and its disappearance implies that some or all of the group’s members realised this too.

Yet Turner isn’t alone. Over the past few years, stories of young people committing crimes have increasingly included a social media element. When a pair of young teenagers beat 39-year-old Angela Wrightson to death in Hartlepool over a period of 17 hours in 2014, they sent selfies with her bruised body via Snapchat, then documented their ride in a police van in the same way.

Maxwell Marion Morton, a teenager from Pennsylvania, took a selfie with a victim at the scene of the crime – which eventually led police to arrest him and charge him with the murder. Marina Lorina and Raymond Gates have pleaded not guilty to charges of rape, kidnap, sexual battery and pandering sexual matter involving a minor, despite a live Periscope stream allegedly taken by Lorina which appears to show Gates raping her friend. The prosecutor said Lorina was "caught up in the likes” on the video and was “giggling and laughing” throughout. Similarly, BuzzFeed discovered what seemed to be a rape streamed live over Periscope in London. During the gang-rape in 2013 which rent the community of Steubenville, Ohio, multiple images, written descriptions of the situation, and videos were posted on social media sites and YouTube.

Clockwise from top: the mug shots of Marina Lonina and Raymond Gates, a Snapchat sent by one of Angela Wrightson's killers from inside a police van; a photo taken by police of Brock Turner's phone notifications; a tweet sent during the Steubenville gang rape.

What these stories have in common is young people engaged or involved in criminal behaviour, who want to share what they’re doing – apparently in an air of immediacy and hilarity, not of confession after the fact. Murderers are often caught through their own desire to confess – the man who posted images of his strangled girlfriend on 4chan seems more of this type – but these young people are sharing, it seems, for the sake of sharing. 

These broadcasts of brutal crimes imply that the teens not only did not understand the severity of their crimes, but that the potential to shock and titillate played a role in their motivation.

At its darkest, social media encourages us to top each other in our quest to be the funniest or most outrageous, and while this urge alone cannot have caused these crimes, it has become intertwined with them. Likes, favourites and follows trigger the reward centres in our brains and appeal to a base instinct for approval. We’re not always wired to know when this approval comes for the wrong reasons.

Trial by livestream

Meanwhile, the trend poses a quandary for social media moguls. Tech companies are increasingly adamant that they should not keep unencrypted copies of our messages and pictures, nor should they cave to government or police requests to access them. And yet Brock Turner’s photo, if it existed, constituted crucial evidence.

In fact, the general response of social media companies, until recently at least, was to delete offensive material posted online rather than take investigations any further. This not only fails to tackle the roots of criminal activity, including child porn or the crimes described above, but it also can destroy crucial evidence. This is beginning to change: both Twitter and Facebook have developed links with child protection services to better tackle child abuse and pornography perpetrated online.

The rise of livestreaming video, however, makes things even more complex. In the case of the London Periscope rape, users told BuzzFeed that they felt “powerless” watching it: “All I could do was report it [to Periscope] and wait”, one viewer said. Most social media companies have flagging and reporting mechanisms, but these are slow, and unable to keep up with the immediacy of live video. The London rape Periscope’s creator deleted it shortly after the stream ended, which meant Periscope now has no copy of it, as it only stores videos kept online for at least 24 hours. (Periscope told BuzzFeed at the time that it could not comment on individual cases.)

Facebook is now trying to introduce better monitoring systems for “trending” videos, based on the fact that these outrageous streams quickly earn thousands of views. But even once a video is flagged, Facebook can’t necessarily identify the criminal’s identity, their location, or stop the crime as it happens. It’s a kind of dystopian horror show: watching a crime thorugh your screen which you, and even the video’s provider, is near-powerless to stop it.

Periscope describes its offering as “unfiltered”, while Mark Zuckerberg said in an interview that he loves the “raw” nature of livestreamed video. These adjectives take on a chilling cast when we accept that some will use these services for all the wrong reasons.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.