In the span of just one week, criminal offences — both alleged and proven — involving the use of social media ended up making national headlines.
In one case, infamous “chair girl” Marcella Zoia faced a sentencing hearing Friday after pleading guilty to mischief endangering life for throwing a chair off a Toronto condo balcony, an incident recorded in a Snapchat video that went viral. The Crown is pushing for a sentence of four to six months in jail. Zoia will learn her fate March 12.
In the other, 28-year-old James Potok was arrested for mischief and breach of recognizance after causing a Jamaica-bound plane to return to Pearson airport on Monday over a coronavirus prank. Potok, an aspiring rapper, later told media outlets he had been hoping to make a viral video of the incident. (Video of the incident was indeed widely shared online.)
Both cases pale in comparison to videos and images posted online in recent years depicting actual murders and sexual assaults, but they do raise questions:
Why do people do it? And what impact, if any, would the social media posting have on a person’s sentencing should they be charged with a crime?
“The simple, off-the-top answer is: There is no IQ test for being on social media,” said Ray Surette, professor in the department of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida.
“Some of it is just stupidity, I have to say. It’s people posting confessions, posting inarguable evidence of their guilt, sometimes posting evidence of a crime that might not have come to the police’s attention except for the posting.”
Surette said he believes the posting of possible criminal offences to social media — including livestreaming incidents in progress — are increasing, though said he hasn’t seen any major research confirming this.
In a blog post based on his 2015 paper “Performance Crime and Justice,” Surette wrote that an increase in popularity of social media over the last decade led to a new type of what he calls “performance crimes.”
“The core elements of contemporary performance crimes are that they are created for distribution via social media and involve both willing and unwilling performers,” he wrote, saying there are two types of these performance crimes.
One is where the people are aware that the social media content is being made, maybe even filming it themselves, “and at least tacitly support its subsequent distribution — in this sense, a crime performer is ‘behaving for the camera’ similar to an actor in a play.”
The second type involves a posting where the person is unaware they’re being recorded.
“Social media have caused performances of both types to explode,” Surette writes. “These performances are no longer rare events place and time bound to physical stages and scheduled broadcasts; they are now ephemeral renditions constantly created and digitally distributed.”
Factors that could play into a person’s decision to post potential criminal activity on social media is their age, or level of maturity, said psychologist Naftali Berrill, executive director of New York Forensic, which provides treatment to people on probation and is involved in criminal and civil justice cases as expert witnesses.
“In a world where people receive accolades and attention for the most mundane behaviour, they’re elevated to star status for preposterous activities,” he said. “The sense of power makes them feel special if not grandiose.”
He acknowledged that there have always been cases of people committing crimes to gain attention, such as serial killers sending letters to the police, a form of cat and mouse.
“But this isn’t cat and mouse. This is essentially producing an advertisement of your culpability in connection to a crime. So that’s really weird,” he said. “Every schmuck with a smartphone can do this.”
But with the growing number of people — especially young people — trying to make a living on the Internet as influencers, there’s also a constant pressure to produce and get attention, said Fenwick McKelvey, associate professor in communication studies at Concordia University.
“To me, this speaks in some ways to the long media tradition of scandal, and the fact that scandal is popular,” he said. “You see some influencers gravitate toward something controversial in the hopes it will help distinguish themselves.”
Social media has also made it so much easier for attention-seekers to reach a much wider audience with postings of their crimes, doing away with the need to depend on media institutions and their gate-keeping function of deciding what should be broadcast.
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“Televisions went into your living rooms, iPhones go right into your pocket. It widens the potential audience,” Surette told the Star. “You don’t have to worry about getting on the news, and setting up your event to sort of fit the news format anymore…Because you don’t care if you’re going to be on the news, you’re going directly to the people. You become the producer, the controller and final editor of what goes out there.”
When a social media posting leads to someone facing criminal charges, the posting could be used to explain the person’s motivations for doing what they did, which could ultimately have an impact on their sentence, said Daniel Brown, vice-president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association.
“You can look to the motivations behind it. The fact that somebody was doing it simply to gain notoriety is perhaps something that a judge can consider as an aggravating feature in sentencing and may decide to send a message to the community at large by giving this person a harsh sentence in order to deter others from doing the same type of thing,” he said.