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.
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.
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.
Users flagging content
A spokesperson for Google said in an e-mail that content on YouTube showing someone being hurt or humiliated is subject to removal. “Users flag content that they feel is inappropriate. Once flagged, content is reviewed by our staff and usually removed from the system within minutes if it violates our Community Guidelines,” the spokesperson wrote.
Relying on users to flag material is the only practical approach for websites with large volumes of content, says Ms. Aftab, who also serves on the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, a national group of businesses, academics, and nonprofits. It is based at the Berkman Center and was formed in February as part of an agreement between MySpace and 50 state attorneys general to develop online safety solutions.
WiredSafety has trained thousands of volunteers to patrol social-networking sites to flag problematic youth videos. Plugging in a term such as “school fights,” for instance, brings up more than 40,000 links on YouTube, and each one needs to be examined to determine the nature of the content.
“Kids think it’s cool to have a place to put their own personal things online,” says Maggie, a member of Teenangels, a group started by WiredSafety for peer education. Many students don’t think about the consequences of what they post, adds Maggie, who asked that her last name not be used because of a Teenangels policy to protect its members. “To them, it’s just pixels … and a lot of them don’t realize how permanent it is.”
Her Teenangels chapter in New Rochelle, N.Y., developed an anticyberbullying “Megan Pledge” – named after the Missouri girl. Signers agree, among other things, not to pass on cruel content or use interactive technologies as a weapon. More than 230,000 have endorsed it online through myYearbook.com.
“It’s really important that kids become part of the solution,” Aftab says.
Law enforcement officers have used Internet videos as evidence in criminal cases. But they would prefer that witnesses share material directly with them. And they’re starting to get new tools to deter certain types of Internet posts. Missouri passed a law in June expanding the crimes of harassment and stalking to include electronic communications. It became the 18th state to create a law addressing cyberbullying.
Perhaps the most explicit crackdown has been in France, which last year criminalized the filming and online posting of violent acts for anyone who is not a journalist. Violators face fines and up to five years in prison. In Britain, a 15-year-old girl was sentenced to two years of detention for aiding and abetting manslaughter after she videotaped a lethal attack, the Daily Mail reported.
Researchers are turning their attention to the ways people use technology to victimize, but so far little is known about “electronic aggression,” a term advocated by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.
Various studies have found that 9 percent to 34 percent of youths are victims of electronic aggression and that 4 percent to 21 percent are perpetrators, the CDC reports. One study found a 50 percent increase in youth victims of online harassment between 2000 and 2005. Such findings were compiled in a CDC report last year.
Technology prompts such questions as, “Do we need to think about bullying in a different way when it happens electronically?” says Marci Feldman Hertz, a CDC health scientist and co-author of the report. Bullying usually entails repeated acts with harmful intent, she says, but if one act is posted online, does the ripple effect of viewership constitute repetition?
Aftab’s experience leads her to think that early research understates the problem. When she explained cyberbullying to middle-schoolers last year, about 85 percent of the 45,000 she polled said they’d experienced it.