Police have found the suspect who shot and killed an elderly victim and posted footage of the deed on Facebook. He took his own life before he could be taken into custody. His act was yet another example of a new trend — “performance violence” on social media.
From the live torture of a mentally disabled teenager in Chicago to the performance terrorism of videotaped decapitations posted online by jihadists in the Middle East, people are using social media to record, share and distribute images of violent acts that in days past would have remained hidden from public view.
The question is, why? Why do people post extravagant acts of violence online knowing that in this digital age of perfect remembering, such posts can and will be used as evidence against them?
Short answer — because we’re watching.
Social media have turned violent acts into dramatic performances that can be watched by millions. And with these violent performances, anyone can become a star.
The performance of violence obviously predates the digital age. From the Greek tragedies to “Game of Thrones,” violent performances have been a constant fixture of drama and fiction. Violent performances also are a fact of life. Gladiatorial spectacles, public executions, even professional sports — all constitute violent performances in one sense or another. Violent performances entertain and inform. They make us look, and look away.
Today, however, there is a new show in town. The sublime spectacle of regular people purposively performing violence for the fame and status it confers.
Social media are the mechanism for attaining this status. We all are beholden to it for its power to let us reach an audience. If we see something we like, we post it. If we see something we don’t like, we post it more. In the process, our subjective reality becomes objectively quantified and validated by the number of “likes,” “views,” “retweets,” “friends,” and “followers” we accumulate. We start to behave as though, should a tree fall in the woods with nobody there to capture it on social media, it wouldn’t make a sound.
There are strange incentives, therefore, to live our lives in public. One of the authors of this commentary understands this better than most. Eight years ago, she decided to dance down the aisle at her wedding to a pop song by Chris Brown. Today, “JK Wedding Dance” has nearly 100 million views and is one of the most watched, liked and commented-on videos on YouTube. She became an accidental social media celebrity overnight.
Violence has always been a means to achieve status, but the structure of social media gives violence new power to make you an instant celebrity. For people who may already feel that the world ignores them or fails to see them as they wish to be seen, this can be seductive.
During the horrific 2016 shootings at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, where 49 people were murdered, the shooter, Omar Mateen, checked Facebook and Twitter during the massacre to make sure it was going viral. It was.
As criminologist Ray Surette observes, violence performers in the age of social media are both willing and unwilling. The willing are those who “produce” violent content for consumption. They are fully aware of their leading role in violent performances, typically as perpetrators. They often record or film violence themselves and support its distribution. Steve Stephens, the suspect in the Ohio Facebook shooting, was a willing performer.
The unwilling, by contrast, play a lead or supporting role without giving consent. They are typically the victims of violence. In the latest case, it was a 74-year old man walking down a street in Cleveland. People objectified by those in control of the camera are repeatedly victimized every time their initial victimization is replayed or repurposed.
Finally, there is the audience. Why do we watch these violent performances? For the very same reasons we cannot look away from a car crash. Some of us enjoy the performance of violence; we find it thrilling, like a horror movie. Others are saddened by it, particularly if they identify with the victims as if they were themselves or their loved ones victims. Forced to watch unedited, unpredictable and sometimes disturbing violent performances again and again, some experience trauma that causes post-traumatic stress disorder vicariously.
Still others are inspired by the performances to mimic them, or incited to retaliatory episodes of their own. Social media have given new meaning to “audience participation.” No longer passive spectators, the audience can actively interact with the violent performers, comment on their performance, and/or help their performance reach new audiences. They are consumers and producers at the same time.
Violence performed online has a different purpose than the violence we are accustomed to, leaving criminologists and law enforcement at a loss for how to prevent it. Creating harsher penalties for posting crimes on Facebook likely won’t help, since the perpetrators appear to give little concern to inevitable capture or, as in this recent case, death.
So, here’s something we can all do — consider our own role in these violent performances by changing our online behavior. Performances close their curtains when people stop buying tickets.
Jillian Peterson is an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University. James Densley is an associate professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State University.