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Efforts to rein in online fight videos

Pressure builds on social-networking websites to do more to block such content. Legislation is afoot, too.

By Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / July 22, 2008

Awaiting court hearing: Three teens who were accused of beating a girl and posting a video of it online had a hearing at Polk County Court in Florida in April. Eight teens were originally charged in the case, but felony charges were dropped against some of them.

George Skene/Orlando Sentinel/AP/file

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The images played out in shocking detail this spring: a group of Florida teens beating a girl and videotaping it to allegedly post online at YouTube and MySpace. Some of them face felony charges and the possibility of life in prison.

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The hundreds of thousands of fight videos online, running the gamut from fake fights to bullying to gang warfare, have parents, educators, and lawmakers around the world grasping for solutions. They want popular social-networking websites to do more to block or remove such content. Some places in the US and abroad are even criminalizing “cyberbullying” and the recording and posting of violent acts.

The ensuing debates raise age-old issues of free speech versus safety. Those on the safety side say the matter is urgent because the videos seem to inspire copycat acts. They also raise concerns that the broadcasting of such fights intensifies the humiliating effects of bullying.

“A lot of kids are looking for attention; they’re looking for a way to measure their own popularity, and they measure it now on page views,” says Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety, an online safety group in Fort Lee, N.J. “The faster we can get any of the networks to take down [such content], the less likely it is that kids are going to keep doing it, because they do it for the fame factor.”

But judging which videos should be removed can be difficult, because it’s hard to know what’s really going on. In some cases, kids are merely faking the kind of violence that TV or Hollywood serves up all the time.

Even if restricted on popular social-networking sites, kids’ fight videos will probably continue going up on other sites or perhaps shift offshore, says Danah Boyd, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. The broader issue is “what it means ... to glorify violence in the way we do across all sectors of society,” she says. “The Internet mirrors back to us what we’ve instilled as cultural values, and when we look at that mirror, we don’t like what we see.”

Pedro Nava, a Democrat in the California Assembly, first tuned into the dangers of social-networking sites when Missouri teen Megan Meier committed suicide after being cyberbullied in 2006. But the breaking point came when he discovered gangs in his own state using website videos to mark people for murder, including a young man in Salinas who was killed this year.

“There should be more responsibility on the part of the networking sites to police themselves,” Mr. Nava says. He recently introduced a resolution that urges websites with user-generated content to “immediately remove actively violent and criminal content … [and] proactively enforce their terms of use.”

Nava also wants the sites to find ways to screen out inappropriate content before it is posted. He hopes the resolution will prompt a discussion, including how to take into account First Amendment issues. He has since been invited to visit the offices of YouTube (part of Google) and MySpace (part of Fox), and he hopes to work with various companies to find a solution.

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