Victims, Violence, and Voyeurs: The Darker Side of Third Spaces

By Patrick M. Johnson

**WARNING – THIS POST DISCUSSES ACTS OF VIOLENCE, INCLUDING: SEXUAL ASSAULT, KIDNAPPING, AND TORTURE**

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Note: All photographs are stock photos of actors and are not intended to associate the individuals pictured with the crimes discussed herein.

Third Spaces are those that operate in the liminal space between the mainstream and the subaltern.  When thinking of these in context of digital spaces, we tend to think of them as spaces of empowerment and possibility, of those oppressed using these spaces to challenge their oppressors.  And indeed, this does quite often happen in these spaces, as has been discussed in numerous other blog posts here.  However, empowerment and possibility, while often viewed as positives, have a dark side as well.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, empowerment is defined as “The process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.”  Much thought is given to the empowerment of the oppressed, but what happens when the technologies and affordances are able to give power to the oppressors instead?  In this blog post, I will be exploring several instances in which the affordances of social media created a space for horrific acts of mental, emotional, and even physical violence.

Cyberbullying has become a buzzword in many schools over the past several years as a cautionary tale for parents to become more involved in the interactions of their children online.  Unlike traditional schoolyard bullying, cyberbullying can happen anywhere and everywhere, leaving the victims unable to escape to a safe place.  Despite being a topic of concern for numerous years, at the end of 2016, a young 18-year old girl from Texas committed suicide after months of being cyberbullied both through Facebook and through her cellphone.

While any loss of life is a tragedy in its own right, what makes this case (and many others like it) is that there is simply not much that can be done.  The people who were bullying Brandy Vela remained anonymous by using apps (such as Ask.fm) that are rooted in anonymity.  In this way, not only are these digital spaces acting “as-if” they were the physical sites of bullying, but in a twisted way have almost perfected the site through providing the assailants the one thing that a physical space cannot – the guarantee of privacy.

In Texas, there are laws against cyberbullying and harassment and it is considered a Class B Misdemeanor, which according to Texas Statute Sec. 12.22.:

CLASS B MISDEMEANOR:  An individual adjudged guilty of a Class B misdemeanor shall be punished by:

(1)  a fine not to exceed $2,000;

(2)  confinement in jail for a term not to exceed 180 days;  or

(3)  both such fine and confinement

 

It should be noted that these are the limits for an adult who is convicted of a Class 2 Misdemeanor.  To place this in context, the crime of cyberbullying is considered on par with possession (without intent to sell) of Marijuana (also a Class 2 Misdemeanor).

Despite being such a prominent and important issue that has inspired numerous organizations to call for finding ways to end it, it is still an issue that many states seem relatively behind on.  While all 50 States have laws and provisions against bullying and harassment, only 34 have laws specifically against cyberbullying.  Some of these states do have laws that govern electronic communications, yet there are different criteria for what constitutes harassment.  Alaska is one of these 16 states that does not prohibit “cyberbullying” but does have wording in their statute about electronic communication:

Alaska Statutes Title 11. Criminal Law § 11.61.120. Harassment in the second degree

(a) A person commits the crime of harassment in the second degree if, with intent to harass or annoy another person, that person

(1) insults, taunts, or challenges another person in a manner likely to provoke an immediate violent response;

(2) telephones another and fails to terminate the connection with intent to impair the ability of that person to place or receive telephone calls;

(3) makes repeated telephone calls at extremely inconvenient hours;

(4) makes an anonymous or obscene telephone call, an obscene electronic communication, or a telephone call or electronic communication that threatens physical injury or sexual contact;

(5) subjects another person to offensive physical contact;

(6) except as provided in AS 11.61.116, publishes or distributes electronic or printed photographs, pictures, or films that show the genitals, anus, or female breast of the other person or show that person engaged in a sexual act;  or

(7) repeatedly sends or publishes an electronic communication that insults, taunts, challenges, or intimidates a person under 18 years of age in a manner that places the person in reasonable fear of physical injury.

(b) Harassment in the second degree is a class B misdemeanor.

See more at: http://codes.findlaw.com/ak/title-11-criminal-law/ak-st-sect-11-61-120.html#sthash.4YNvf31f.dpuf

What is striking to me about this law is that it is only against the law to electronically harass someone under the age of 18, and it is only even considered harassment if the content is obscene or threatening physical harm.

Even when there are laws on the books against this type of harassment, for those who are over the age of 18, and when the bully is found guilty there is not a guarantee that there will be much of a sentence – as was the case with the trial of Dharun Ravi who in 2010 broadcast (by way of a hidden web-cam) his closeted, gay room roommate Tyler Clementi having sex with another man, leading to Clementi’s suicide shortly after.

Ravi was initially found guilty of bias-intimidation; however, the decision was eventually overturned in order to have a new trial due to changing state law.  Ravi recently accepted a plea deal to attempted invasion of privacy and was sentenced to time served and fines paid.   Molly Wei, the other student charged in relationship to Clementi’s death, plead not-guilty and a deal was reached for her to do community service and to seek counseling on cyberbullying and how to be sensitive to those with “alternative lifestyles.”

While these examples garnered a lot of media attention, we need to not focus only on those with the most horrifying and immediate repercussions as cyberbullying.  As a 2015 study of Midwestern teens between the ages of 11 and 15 showed, that over one-third of the 457 children surveyed had been a victim of cyber-bullying at some point in their lifetime, and with over twenty percent of the respondents saying that they had been cyber-bullied numerous times within the 30 days prior to the survey.

According to a 2010 study by Borowsky, Taliaferro, and McMorris, there was a strong link between cyberbullying and suicide ideation.  Additionally, according to a meta-study of 43 studies about bullying and suicidality in youth, peer victimization was strongly linked to both suicide ideation and attempts.

 

Through these two examples, it is clear the ways that these digital third spaces are able to create a new space for bullies and bigots to harass and target their victims.  However, this is not the only way that these online spaces are enabling the assault of victims, as shown by two incidents that occurred within the first three months of 2017 in Chicago in which horrific violent crimes were broadcast on Facebook Live to audiences.


The first was the kidnapping and torture of a young 18-year old man with special needs.  While the torture of any individual is horrific, what makes this a unique instance is that it was live broadcast, and as many as 16000 people tuned in at some point.  Despite the community standards policies that Facebook has in place to prevent videos like this from being shared on their site, the video still managed to stay online for over 30 minutes.  While all four of the individuals involved in the torture have been arrested and charged with multiple accounts, including it being treated as a hate crime, it is unclear how the police located them – whether it was through the victim’s testimony after he had been released from his torturers captivity or by someone reporting the video is not known. One thing that is certain is that even after the video was taken down; it had already been recorded and started cycling its way through the web.

Image result for watching computer

Just a few months later in March of 2017, Chicago experienced a second, very similar incident in which the gang rape of a young, 14-year old girl was broadcast on Facebook Live.  In a similar instance to the torture broadcast, the girl was brutally attacked by six individuals.  As of the time that I am writing this post, two of the six individuals have been arrested and are being charged with aggravated criminal sexual assault, manufacturing of child pornography and dissemination of child pornography.  Similar to the previous broadcast, this one was viewed by numerous people (although this one no near as many with only 40 viewers watching – not the 16,000 who viewed the torture).  However, unlike the video of the torture which went on for a very lengthy time and consisted mainly of people talking to the camera (with no torture being shown on camera for much of it, and thus we cannot know for sure how many people idly sat by and watched the horror), the only thing broadcast with this was the rape.  This means that 40 people sat on their computers or smartphones to watch the gang rape of a child.

Since the individuals charged with the rape are also being charged with distribution of child pornography, it seems logical that at least in this instance those who watched on would be charged with counts of child pornography as well.   However, this is an area of debate among legal scholars who question whether watching a live-feed would actually count as possession or reception of child pornography.   Moreover, even if the courts decided that the viewing of such material should count as child-pornography, the burden would rest of the prosecution to prove that the individual whose account was logged in was the person actually watching the video.

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There also needs to be the consideration that some of those watching may not have known it was real and perhaps assumed it was some type of sick pornography that just simulated child rape.  There is also the question of whether some people clicked on it, then immediately turned it off when they saw what it was.  It is not uncommon for bystanders of sexual assaults (or other violent crimes) to not report or take action, and when online the diffusion of responsibility is likely to be even greater as research has shown the more bystanders there are the less likely people are to react and the internet essentially contains an infinite number of potential bystanders who could each assume another would take action.

While there are numerous reasons we can posit that some of the individuals who watched this rape or the torture were not there for entertainment, it is (sadly) safe to say that there were at least some who were tuning in for their own personal enjoyment, and this is the area that I think is prudent to examine.  Just like we can assume that not all of the bullies mean ill to those they bully (but rather view it as the norm or their way of fitting in), it is likely that there are some who are intentionally targeting specific people in order to cause harm (whether that be emotional or physical is irrelevant in my opinion). In thinking about this, it is also important to consider the ways that the law is not keeping up with technological advances and it is this gap between the two that are creating these horrific third spaces of violence and voyeurism.

One of the things that struck me when I started looking up the laws for bullying and harassment was how specific the language was especially in regards to technology.  Looking back to the statute from Alaska that I shared earlier, it specifically references making phone calls, while separating that from electronic communication:

“(3) makes repeated telephone calls at extremely inconvenient hours;

(4) makes an anonymous or obscene telephone call, an obscene electronic communication, or a telephone call or electronic communication that threatens physical injury or sexual contact;”

Interestingly, sending repeated text messages at extremely inconvenient hours would not be included within these definitions because the only prohibition on what hours constitute as harassment are related to telephone calls.  According to the law, anonymity also is only problematic when in the context of a telephone call, so while any anonymous phone call could be considered harassment, the same content (unless “obscene”) in the medium of a text message would be unproblematic.  What is troubling in both of these situations it that these are two of the main issues reported by the family of Brandy Vela as occurring in the harassment that led to her taking her life.  However, they were done via text message not phone calls – demonstrating that perhaps the law should focus less on the medium and more on the message.

Additionally, we can imagine that if there were a crowd of individuals standing around in a room, enjoyably watching the rape of a young girl they would all be considered complicit.  However, you take the same behavior online and there is nothing that can be done, legally – unless there is documentation of said individual provoking or encouraging the attack (and there is evidence that it was the account holder who is responsible).  Moreover, the fact that potentially viewing child-pornography could only be criminal in the event of downloading seems to be missing the point of the law – which is to discourage and prohibit any sexual exploitation of children.

Technology will always advance faster than laws are able to adapt, which means that perhaps new approaches need to be taken in making laws.  Rather than waiting until a new manifestation of old behaviors surfaces due to technological changes, perhaps it would be better to focus on the intent of the law and less on the specifics.  Rather than laws getting bogged down in specifics that will never be able to keep up with technological changes, and thus new technological loopholes, perhaps there needs to be some foresight in the creation of laws.  Is there really a difference between cyberbullying and older forms of bullying?  Outside of a change in medium, the message and intent between the two is the same.  Why then, would there need to be new laws just because of a new technology?  Is there really a difference between individuals watching on in a chat feed of a horrific crime happening and standing in the same room?  Again, outside of the technological barrier it seems to me that the two are equally as morally reprehensible.  As long as the laws continue to sag behind technological advances, there will continue to be these third spaces created that empower individuals to live out their darkest elements in this ”cyber”-world, as-if they were doing so in the “real” world, while harming those who the laws are intended to protect.

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