Rising Numbers of Criminals Are Using Facebook To Document Their Crimes
By Olivia Solon . Updated January 30, 2017.
This week three men have been arrested in Sweden on suspicion of raping a woman in an apartment in Uppsala, about an hour north of Stockholm. It wasn’t difficult for the police to find the suspects because they broadcast the alleged assault on Facebook Live. Several viewers reported the footage and police swarmed the apartment to take the men into custody.
Facebook Live allows anyone to broadcast a video directly from their smartphone to the social network. Despite a wide-reaching advertising campaign urging people to use the feature to share heartwarming life moments, it’s gained a reputation for much grittier subject matter: the torture of a young man with disabilities in Chicago; the musings of a spree killer being chased by police ; child abuse and now gang rape.
In each case the impulse to ‘go live’ was ferociously self-incriminating, providing neatly packaged pieces of evidence of crimes -- or their aftermath -- that may have otherwise gone unobserved and possibly unpunished. And yet, according to researchers, the practice of documenting one’s crimes is on the rise. So what drives this self-defeating behaviour?
“Stupidity comes to mind. You might as well go down to the police station and commit the crime in the lobby,” said Raymond Surette, professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida, who has studied the phenomenon.
It’s not always that simple, however. Terrorists, political protesters and narcissistic criminals have long carried out crimes designed to further their agenda or demonstrate their own perceived cleverness, power or bravado. In these cases, calculated use of the media can ensure that “bragging” or “performance” crimes make maximum impact -- something even Jack the Ripper, who sent letters about his murders to the police and local press in the 1880s -- recognized.
“Historically there’s always been crimes committed with an audience in mind, but it’s been a low level background noise in the general crime picture,” said Surette, citing pre-internet cases of self-immolation.
What’s new is the access people have to tools, via the smartphone, that allow for the creation, publication and distribution of content at the touch of a button -- through photos, tweets, status updates, videos and now live streaming. Facebook isn’t the only app that allows smartphone users to broadcast in realtime, but it’s the only one available to an audience of 1.79 billion users.
“Committing a crime for an audience has never been easier!” said Surette.
The allure of attention from online peers, reinforced by immediate feedback in the form of shares, likes and other “engagement” indicators, can be intoxicating.
“Social media is the new way of bragging for those who commit crimes to gain a sense of self-power or self-importance. The audience is larger now and, perhaps, more seductive to those who are committing antisocial acts to fill personal needs of self-aggrandizement,” said media psychologist Pamela Rutledge.
The allure of a big audience can overcome common sense, leading to people broadcasting the very information that law enforcement can use to catch and punish them.
For some “digitally native” perpetrators, it’s a logical progression in a world where the online documentation of life moments -- through Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and other apps -- is key aspect of communication and self-expression.
“A lot of younger people have grown up under self-surveillance. They are always on camera, taking pictures, selfies and driving towards the big umbrella of oversharing,” said Surette.
Sveinung Sandberg, who has been studying why people film their crimes in his native Norway, agrees.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
Celebrity culture also plays a role, said Surette.
“It’s better to be famous for being bad than to be unknown. Criminality has become part of our infotainment world,” he said.
In the 19th and 20th century there were celebrity criminals like Billy the Kid and Al Capone. Today, you’re more likely to see regular celebrities become involved in criminality -- from Justin Bieber’s dangerous driving, Paris Hilton’s drug arrest and Lindsay Lohan’s DUIs and subsequent probation violations.
“Being drawn into a criminal case used to be a career killer. Now it seems that for a lot of younger celebrities a little bit of criminality can be a good transitional device for your career,” said Surette.
“It gives the message that criminality isn’t all that bad. The shame has been taking out of it and there’s no expectation of punishment or bad stuff happening.”
“A lot of these people are shocked the police are showing up at their door.”
A darker aspect of this trend is the way that the act of recording furthers the humiliation of the victim, as seemed to be the case in the Chicago torture video. Sandberg believes this has ties to a broader online culture of humiliation that includes prank videos and some genres of pornography. In his analysis of 51 criminal cases involving the use of a camera (although none of them involved live streaming), Sandberg found 17 examples where images were recorded for this purpose. Most involved sexual abuse and were not intended to be funny, but in some cases images were produced for their comic potential, in the vein of Jackass-style violent stunts (remember happy slapping?).
“You get two-fold victimization,” said Surette. “The actual crime and then the humiliation and sharing.”
Even if the footage isn’t actually distributed online, the mere threat of it being shared can add to the victim’s suffering, said Sandberg.
In most cases he looked at, the recorded images weren’t widely distributed. Sandberg believes this is because the perpetrators have second thoughts after the fact.
With live streaming, however, regret comes too late. “You are living in that moment and you don’t have time to rethink it,” he said.
“This can be a painful lesson,” added Rutledge, ”as the internet is permanent and searchable.”