Tied up and gagged with duct-tape, an unidentified, mentally disabled Chicago teenager was beaten, his scalp was cut until it bled, and his body was peppered with cigarette ash — all while being livestreamed on Facebook. The crime, allegedly perpetrated by four other young adults, made waves in January 2017, marking a disturbing trend of criminal livestreamers.
On Thursday, the third of four of the defendants pled guilty and was sentenced to eight years in prison in the face of the insurmountable video evidence that they themselves provided. The sentencing not only highlights the livestreamed crime trend, but also underscores how the technology can incentivize crime, create a new form of documentation for police, and perpetuate the political capitalization of crimes.
Crimes for Likes
During the livestream, the perpetrators screamed “Fck Donald Trump! F*ck white people!” That detail has been used by prosecutors to charge the defendants with hate crimes (the victim was white).
Besides a disturbing racial motivation, the shouts over livestream seemingly illustrate a desire to use a victim to make a political point.
Without the ability to livestream the crime, the attack could be read as solely directed at the victim, potentially for his race. But with the added element of Facebook Live, the crime becomes a message directed towards the public. Through this function, livestreaming has seemingly incentivized crime in a new way.
In June 2017, BuzzFeed reported that at that time, there had been 45 instances of violence broadcast on the Facebook Live platform since December 2015. These included incidents like recorded police violence, where the broadcasts are seemingly incidental to the violence, but also more intentional acts, like a live-broadcast self-immolation and a different beating in Canada that resulted in the death of a high school student.
In May 2017, Facebook announced that it would hire 3,000 people to help monitor violent content on the platform, which Facebook says they do at all hours.
Despite this, violent content has persisted on the platform. In April 2018, Johnathan Robinson allegedly murdered his ex-girlfriend Rannita Williams during a Facebook Live broadcast, saying “I’m gonna make you famous.”
When reached for comment, a Facebook representative told Inverse that they remove content celebrating and glorifying crimes, and attempt to interrupt Facebook Livestreams that go against their Community Standards. Facebook says they encourage viewers to contact law enforcement directly if they believe it will be helpful.
A Preponderance of Evidence
Perhaps adding a judicial counterweigh to Facebook Live’s tendency to attract a certain type of crime is the fact that any incidents recorded on the platform are archived and can be retrieved as evidence by the company. This will undoubtedly make the job of prosecutors easier. In March 2018, Anthony Gelia was sentenced to life in prison after he livestreamed the murder of a young mother. Prosecutor Jerry Jarzynka noted the unique and important nature of the evidence after the verdict. “With the type of evidence we had in this case, the social media, we’ll probably never see something like this again.”
In the alleged gang-rape of a 15-year-old girl in Chicago, prosecutors used Facebook Live evidence to charge one of the alleged perpetrators.
In the case of police shootings, Facebook Live has been used as a tool for documentation and mobilization but has not helped much in the way of convicting officers accused of killings.
In July 2017, the shooting of Philando Castile was captured in a Facebook Live video, which sparked intense protests and was used in evidence in the unsuccessful case against officer Jeronimo Yanez.
The Cook County State Attorney’s Office, which has been prosecuting the Facebook Live torture case, declined to comment for this article.
Crimes as Political Devices
In a rare move, the judge presiding over the Facebook torture case completely shut the trial, banning sketch artists and cameras from the courtroom. The reason? The case had gone so viral, in part because of the Facebook Live video, that political conspiracy theories began to crop up about it, and the judge was concerned about everyone’s safety.
Without evidence, far-Right Twitter personalities like Mike Cernovich and InfoWars’ Paul Joseph Watson began to attribute the kidnapping to Black Lives Matter, using the hashtag #BLMKidnapping. The hashtag quickly trended on Twitter, finding advancement from media personalities like Glenn Beck. Eventually, police issued a statement confirming that the event was not affiliated with the organization.
While people have been using crimes for political gain (see Donald Trump and the Central Park 5) for centuries, the viral economy and echo chamber adds a new, dangerous twist to the equation — allowing outlets to quickly disseminate false or misinformed content to a siloed readership that will give unchecked facts little pushback.
While it’s still unclear whether or not the benefits that transparency and documentation of Facebook Live crimes provide outweigh the seeming incentive that the platform gives to some violent criminals, it’s certain that its effects on crime will be significant.