This week, Chicago authorities charged four young black adults with hate crimes, after a video broadcast live on Facebook showed them torturing and beating a disabled white teenager, all the while making racist statements about white people. It’s hard to understand how something so gruesome could happen, and perhaps even more perplexing why anyone would choose to broadcast an act so horrendous. It is becoming clear that the public faces unprecedented challenges in a world that’s now being broadcast live by anyone, and to anyone.
As someone who has conducted experimental research on aggression, prejudice, social influence, and irrational decision-making, I find myself wondering whether the science of social psychology has any findings that can help us understand these events, and address the question of whether Facebook’s live-streaming might itself be held responsible for the violence and/or people’s responses to it.
Watching people hurt other people teaches young observers that violence is normative, and repeated exposure to violence also desensitizes observers to other people’s pain, according to Iowa State professor Craig Anderson and a team of prominent researchers, who reviewed several decades of research on media violence. My colleagues and I have also found that people who are concerned with status may “aggress to impress” – actually show off their violent proclivities to win respect from others. It certainly seems clear that the four perpetrators of the recent Facebook torture video believed that they would impress their friends by broadcasting their violence. One of them even complained that not enough of her Facebook associates were commenting!
This is, of course, not a problem unique to Facebook and the modern digital era. Way back around 1960, I remember seeing an eerie photo of a smiling teenager on the cover of the New York Daily News. The young man had just been apprehended for committing a number of random killings in New York. Why? Because, he said, he wanted to see his picture in the newspaper. Other research finds that newspaper coverage of famous suicides can up the odds of readers taking their own lives, and Anderson’s research on media and aggression looked at the impact of movies, television, and video games.
So although Facebook live coverage may be more immediate, any coverage of violence can be harmful. Although there can be parental advisories for video games and music, though, and ratings for movies, live Facebook feeds go up immediately. Those video segments can go viral before parents, or even Facebook censors, can evaluate them. Should Facebook stop live feeds, and only allow edited content to appear? It is hard to imagine that happening without draconian levels of control.
And, there is another possible side to this story. For most of us, potential public awareness of our behavior will likely decrease our tendency to misbehave. Some controversial videos depict acts of violence — as they are being committed, not as advertisements by the perpetrators, but as evidence, filmed by uninvolved observers. The awareness that anyone in the vicinity could turn on their cell-phone camera, and make your antisocial behavior public could have the effect of lowering antisocial behavior. Indeed, research on the topic of “deindividuation” has revealed that most people are more likely to misbehave when they are completely anonymous – under the cover of darkness, in a large crowd of strangers, or when wearing a Halloween mask. Knowing we are being watched will lead most of us, with the exception of a rare few sadistic narcissists, to behave in a more civilized manner.
So what should Facebook do, and what should the rest of us expect?
Certainly Facebook should, and already does, make an effort to remove videos that involve gratuitous violence. But, live video feeds, like all forms of information, can have good and bad consequences. On the positive side, most people are likely to be better behaved in a world in which Big Brother, or their own little brother, may very well be watching. On the negative side, people without sufficient shame will have an easier time advertising their bad behaviors before a more socially concerned Big Brother can turn off the channel.
Douglas Kenrick is a professor of social psychology at Arizona State University, who has studied irrational decision-making and social influence in an evolutionary context. He is the author of The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think, and of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life.