It has been said that you can find anything online if you look hard enough. While some people use the internet to find entertaining videos, news stories, sports highlights, and hobby advice, others are attracted to the way that it allows them to share their lives with others. Social media outlets have become an extremely popular form of communication, with Facebook boasting more than 1.8 billion—yes, billion with a “b”—active monthly users. Facebook Live, a live video streaming feature, launched about a year ago, giving users the ability to instantly share videos of their exploits and experiences with their friends. But, what happens when those exploits are actually homicides or sexual assaults being broadcast in real time? Does a person who sees a crime on social media have a legal obligation to report it to appropriate authorities?
The issue has been particularly illuminated by two high-profile examples in recent weeks—both involving actions broadcasted on Facebook Live. The first involved an alleged gang rape of a Chicago teenager by several juveniles and at least one adult, according to reports. Thus far, Chicago police have arrested one of the minors and another turned himself in, but at least 40 people watched the streaming video.
The second incident occurred on Easter Sunday when a man in Cleveland, OH, shot a killed 73-year-old man. The shooter posted the video to Facebook and used the site’s live feature to broadcast his admission to the crime several minutes later. The video of the killing remained accessible on Facebook for more than two hours after it was posted, but copies of the video continued to garner views, including one that was watched more than 1.6 million times. After a two-day manhunt, the shooter killed himself at the end of a vehicle pursuit by police.
In the wake of these horrible crimes, some are calling for action to be taken against those who watched the gruesome videos but did not call 911 or file any type of report with the police. In reality, however, there is little that that can be done. The issue complicated by several factors. First and foremost, only a few states require an ordinary citizen to report a crime that they have witnessed. Apart from fairly standard mandated reporter rules regarding domestic violence, Connecticut does not hold witnesses to a crime liable for inaction or failure to report.
Another consideration regarding crimes broadcast on social media is that viewers cannot always be certain that what they are seeing is real. Video sharing sites are full of clips that have been doctored, staged, or otherwise made to look like a real event when, in fact, it is not. Sometimes, reality may not matter, however. In the Chicago rape case, for example, the video could be considered child pornography, which could impact those who watched it, even if they thought the actions were not real.
Finally, there is also the question of proving who actually watched the video. A view attributed to a specific internet account is not sufficient proof that the account owner is the one who watched it. He or she may have left a Facebook account open on a shared computer, for example, leaving it available to anyone else who happened upon it.
It remains to be seen if authorities in either case—or in any future case that is sure to follow—will attempt to take action against potential online witnesses who did not report what they were seeing.
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