Social media users must be socially accountable



Chicago Police Commander Kevin Duffin speaks (during a news conference Jan. 5) on the charges filed against four individuals for attacking a man and streaming the video on Facebook.

By Matt Silich, Columnist

The rising popularity of streaming services such as Facebook Live and Periscope have made it easier than ever for people to share the happiest moments of their lives with friends and family.

But in the years since the creation of those outlets, humans have exposed a vulnerability in the practice: What do we do when someone’s proud, shareable moment is one in which they harm themselves or others?

Since as early as the turn of the millennium, people have attempted suicide in front of live audiences online. In some cases, these audiences have intervened and saved lives. But in many others, the opposite has occurred. Internet users — often just regular people protected by a veil of anonymity — have actually cheered and egged on suicides and other violent acts.

That sort of encouragement wasn’t reportedly present during a Facebook Live stream in March that showed the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl in Chicago, but the inaction of the video’s 40 viewers was nearly as unhelpful. Investigations of the incident led to the Saturday night arrest of a 14-year-old boy, who was reportedly among the five or six attackers involved in the video.

This was one of at least four Chicago crimes streamed on Facebook Live since October, according to the Chicago Tribune. Most recently, four young adults were arrested in January for assaulting a man with mental health issues and streaming it on Facebook.

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    Many have blamed the streaming services for these incidents, stating that they should be more vigilant in eradicating violent content. In response to those criticisms, Facebook changed its user interface in June to make it easier for people to report concerns of suicide and other emergencies.

    One can hardly blame a victim’s family for accusing Facebook or Periscope of misdoing, but these acts shouldn’t be an indictment on the service itself.

    It’s difficult to imagine the allure of an audience would further encourage people to commit an act of violence. Those who are capable of such acts in the first place are likely to carry them out regardless of what the internet says.

    Like so many other societal issues supposedly introduced by the advent of new technologies, the problem here is a human one. And it requires a human solution.

    These horrifying crimes should inspire awareness of the subject. The danger of bystander culture has become an important topic of education for young students, but that hasn’t been effective enough in curbing cyberbullying, perhaps because the online world is so vast and difficult to explain. 

    People young and old need to understand that watching idly online is the same as walking by a crime on the street and doing nothing. It’s so easy to be silent online, which makes it all the more important for everyone to consider the real people on the other sides of their phone screens.

    That sort of education is important, but it also presupposes that someone scrolling through Facebook could even identify a crime streaming in front of their eyes.

    Particularly for older generations, it could be difficult to decipher whether a post on Facebook is part of the recent fake news epidemic or something that needs urgent attention. Video of a sexual assault or suicide happening on one’s screen could be so shocking and out of place that it comes across looking like the dramatized forms of such events that one might see on TV.

    There is no legal consequence at this point for failing to report a crime witnessed live on the internet, but all it takes is one person who understands what’s happening to potentially prevent severe harm or death.

    Hardly anyone reading this will ever witness a live crime on their social media account. Suicidal thoughts are much more common though, and it would be wise for everyone to explore and understand social media tools for reporting distress. Exposure to these critical moments is unlikely, but absolutely still worth preparing for.
    Social accountability has been an important facet of living in a community since the dawn of civilization. The positive aspects of live streaming allow us to form stronger bonds within those communities, but with those benefits must come an evolution in how we protect each other from harm.

    Matt is a senior in Media.

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