On YouTube, anyone can find a home. There are the amateur twerkers, the singers trying to go viral with their renditions of “Wrecking Ball,” the comedians, the rappers, the cats, the news reporters’ bloopers, and the politicians’ filibusters. I am happy all of these different types of videos have found a haven on YouTube and personally spend many hours watching marriage proposal fails. But lately, it seems more and more that YouTube’s welcoming nature towards content is also dangerous. It has become an outlet for crime, criminals, and violence. With videos of everything from beheadings to gang initiations, YouTube too often gives violence a popular forum where an audience can watch and learn. When a video of a gang shooting is on the same feed as a talking dog, we begin to think of crime as just another form of entertainment.
Why is this dangerous? Violence is a daily part of pop culture, you may say, so we should be used to it by now. It’s impossible to turn on the news without hearing about some atrocious story. But the presence of crime on social media sites, specifically YouTube but also Facebook and Instagram, is uniquely worrying because it offers a constant outlet for perpetrators. With the speed it takes to upload a video and the huge amount of content on YouTube, the outpouring of violent images makes it much easier for predators to feel as if their actions are normal and acceptable. For viewers, these videos offer a chance to vicariously participate in a crime. Viewers are constantly in the role of bystanders, looking on at a crime and never intervening—which is terrible preparation for an everyday situation where you actually may be called on to help. Jumping into action to intervene in violence is probably much harder when you are used to the role of immobile audience member.
YouTube also has become a site of modern-day warfare for gang violence in cities like New York and Chicago. Graffiti tagging used to be a popular way to identify oneself as a gang member and to incite crime with rivals in the area. Now, social media and videos are taking over. Just this last summer in August, after a suspected gang member, Blake Lamb, was shot and killed in Chicago, a YouTube video was quickly posted which showed rival gang members taunting Lamb’s body at the scene of the crime. Rap videos with threats towards other gang members have also spread widely. Instagram and Facebook have many of these same issues as well; it’s become popular on Instagram, for example, for criminals to post pictures of their guns and money, to brag about their sway. But YouTube specifically has become a safe haven for the most graphic threats—countless videos show what happens when you mess with the wrong gang.
And what’s even worse, finding a solution seems to be very complex. Censorship becomes such a sticky question, as once you censor one video it’s very easy to find excuses to censor many more without a good reason. But while the issue of censoring videos is a difficult one to tackle, we must be on the lookout for other creative ways to address the problem of making violence such a publically accepted norm. Cracking down on punishments for gangs that post threatening videos or even just widespread cultural condemnation, rather than acceptance, of the practice would be a start. Law enforcement should also take advantage of these criminal advertisements to find the perpetrators and stop them before more crimes are committed, videos recorded, and people murdered.
Interestingly, this week we saw a positive side of crime’s presence on YouTube. In September, an Ohio man named Matthew Cordle confessed to killing a man in a hit and run in a YouTube video. He was sentenced this week to six and a half years in prison and a lifetime suspension of violence. Cordle made the video with the intention to come clean and to accept whatever consequences came his way, unable to bear the guilt any longer. The victim’s family has since said that Cordle’s video, with its sincerity and honesty, encouraged them to not seek the maximum sentence in his case. Cordle’s brave initiative to admit to his wrongdoings in a public video show the positive possibilities that could exist for crime’s relationship with YouTube. Perhaps, instead of a place where violence is greedily gorged upon, we can strive to make it become a site where people seek forgiveness and justice. This sounds too idealistic, maybe, but worth a try.
There is already so much violence in everyday life—on the streets or on the news. We should do our best to make sure hate and fear are constantly quashed and denied, and this can mean helping someone in need or on a smaller level, contributing to the online community in a positive way—maybe flagging a violent video or two. The frightening thing about posting videos is that somewhere, someone is watching and maybe sharing. It’s crucial to remember that with one click, more hate spreads and it becomes much harder to contain.
—Staff writer Isabel H. Evans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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