Group Looks to 'Cyberarmy' to Stop Violent Videos

Group hopes to stop teens who get "15 megabytes of fame" through violent videos.


April 15, 2008 — -- A 16-year-old girl curls up in the fetal position, bracing herself for the vicious blows raining down upon her.

She is held down, punched, kicked, beaten and knocked unconscious. She pleads in vain with her assailants, a pack of angry girls, but doesn't fight back, instead burying her head in self-defense.

It's a horrific beating. And it's on camera, a tape reportedly shot by the attackers for broadcast on YouTube before parents intercepted it.

Eight teens face charges stemming from the alleged beatings, and prosecutors have said they'll try them as adults. But sadly, the March 30 assault on Lakeland, Fla.'s Victoria Lindsay was not an isolated incident, but rather the latest evidence of a problematic growing phenomena: online fight videos — teenagers filming their peers' attacks and then posting the clips on Web sites such as the video-sharing site YouTube and the social networking site MySpace.

"I don't think kids see it as reality. I think they see it as virtual reality. It's a computer game, it's television, it's something that's removed from them," said Parry Aftab, head of Wired Safety, an organization dedicated to combating Internet abuses such as these fight videos.

"When kids are engaged in these cyberbashings, in these sites online, they are actors in a television show," she said. Just kids "looking for their 15 megabytes of fame."

"Everyone wants to be famous, everyone wants to feel special and you can do it by posting an outrageous video on a fabulous site," she said.

Now Aftab is taking action, forming a "cyberarmy" that will monitor the Internet, find these videos and notify the sites to have the offensive content removed.

"If we can find these videos and the sites take them down, that'll make a big difference. But if I can get [the sites] to stop posting them in the beginning, so that it will keep kids from being famous even for the five minutes that they're up, I can make a big difference here. So I'm going to be looking to the industry to help and be responsible. I know they care about this issue very much and I expect them to help us do something about it."

Aftab also wants the sites to "put a special watch on any videos that are posted with certain tag terms in place," thereby enabling them to monitor specific search terms that kids use to identify their videos and attract viewers to them.

These fight videos are a violent, physical variation of cyberbullying, the growing trend of online harassment.

"It's a simple move from doing this in the schoolyard, the hallway and the classroom, to the medium that the students have available to them today," said Pamela Riley, executive director of Students Against Violence Everywhere. "Bullying has been taken to a new level now."

"Popular sites such as MySpace and YouTube can provide very valuable and beneficial activities for young people, but they have also been used for problems," she added. "As we can see with any increase in technology, the good comes with the bad. And unfortunately we have seen students who have transferred their bullying behaviors and aggressive behaviors to the Internet."

Aftab and Riley made similar comments in a Baltimore Sun article about a recent incident in that city when students posted video on MySpace of a classmate hitting their teacher.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call such attacks "electronic aggression." And with the CDC estimating that 80 percent of kids own a "new media technology" device such as a laptop or cell phone, it is easier than ever for these attacks to occur.

"The recent explosion in technology does not come without possible risks," said Corrine David-Ferdon and Marci Feldman-Hertz, co-authors of a recent CDC report in the Journal of Adolescent Health. "Youth can use electronic media to embarrass, harass or threaten their peers. Increasing numbers of adolescents are becoming victims of this new form of violence."

"We can't afford to be naive or ignore the risks that also emerge," said David-Ferdon and Feldman-Hertz.

The report states that "from 2000 to 2005, there was a 50 percent increase in the percentage of youth who were victims of online harassment."

According to a Pew Internet & American Life Project report from June 2007, one in three teens who spend time online have experienced online harassment, but now, according to Don Cantrell, director of internal technology at the South Carolina State Department of Education, cyberbullying is morphing into online fight videos such as the Florida attack.

"That line is becoming blurred," said Cantrell. "What used to feel satisfying with just cyberbullying is now being pushed further to include physical bullying. Now our young people have the ability and the wherewithal to videotape physical actions and post it online."

Cantrell, who travels around the Palmetto State giving seminars and lectures to increase awareness about this problem, compares the current situation to "lawlessness like the Wild West."

"These kids have got blinders on. They don't realize who's looking at this information," said Cantrell. "They know the tools. They just don't understand the ramifications of how to use the tools."

Students, of course, have taken notice as well. Jonai Lloyd, a 16-year old at Laney High School in Wilmington, N.C., knows classmates who have posted fight videos online.

"When you have fights at school, you'll see kids with cameras videotaping them and putting them on MySpace and YouTube and things like that. If there's a fight, they'll look for a camera."

"I don't see how these kids can do this to other people," said Lloyd. "Sometimes I think that these sites should be eliminated."

"I think it's more sad than anything because kids do this stuff for attention," she said. "It makes no sense."

"This is a different degree of bullying. I never witnessed anything like this," added Patricia Barker, a 22-year-old senior at Wisconsin's Ripon College. "The fight videos are really disgusting."

"It's growing at a horrifying rate and I don't know when we're going to stop it, when our society is going to be less obsessed with looking at these things online, and when people are actually going to grow up and realize that things like this aren't right and we can't just stand there and let it happen."

Shawn Karsten, Barker's classmate and a 22-year-old junior, does not think that such a change will happen anytime soon.

"I don't think there is much hope for solving this," said Karsten. "A lot of it comes down to the parents to monitor, but there's only so much that the parents can do and see, so it really comes down to the responsibility of the students to not put themselves in these situations."

Karsten, Barker and Lloyd recently participated in the annual National SAVE Youth Summit in Raleigh, N.C.

Currently the social networking sites follow "a flagged model," which is outlined in online warnings.

YouTube's guidelines caution that "if your video shows someone getting hurt, attacked or humiliated, don't post it."

"We do not allow the uploading of videos that contain threats, hate speech, dangerous acts, or fights involving minors," a YouTube spokesperson told ABC News. "We strictly enforce these policies and such videos are typically flagged by our community and promptly removed."

The spokesperson stated that they "do not comment on individual video sets", but highlighted the company's work to prevent cyberbullying, such as enhanced privacy features and an initiative with UK's to start a YouTube channel to raise cyberbullying awareness.

"Cyberbullying and harassment are a violation of MySpace's terms of use," said MySpace Chief of Security Hemanshu Nigam in a statement about the Florida attack. "In order to enforce our terms, MySpace reviews every image and video that is hosted on the site. To our knowledge, the mentioned video was never hosted on MySpace. However, since the alleged assailants had MySpace profiles, we are working with the Polk County Sheriff's Department to assist their investigation."

On its website MySpace reminds its users that "harassment, hate speech and inappropriate content should be reported. If you feel someone's behavior is inappropriate, react. Report it to MySpace or the authorities."

"Don't post anything that would embarrass you later," the site also warns. "It's easy to think that only our friends are looking at our MySpace page, but the truth is that everyone can see it. Think twice before posting a photo or information you wouldn't want your parents, potential employers, colleges or boss to see!"

Since the sites don't prescreen their users' videos, Aftab says it's just as easy to post clips online as it is to hang a poster at a construction site. Then, once a video is on the Internet, it can be flagged and removed, but as Aftab notes, "when you have 200 million profiles, it's pretty hard for anyone to review that many of them."

"[The sites] need to get a lot of content up there and if they don't get it up there fast enough, another site will take over tomorrow," she said.

Cantrell, who compares the Web sites' systems to a post-first, ask-questions-later policy, says that the rush to post any and all user-submitted video is all about the financial bottom line.

"The companies are certainly in it for the money. They're not trying to provide a community service," he said.

"I do put a moral responsibility on these Web sites," Cantrell added. "They could be doing a much better job than they're doing at the sacrifice of some revenue. A lot of times they're not listening to what the moral police are saying because they're just looking at the bottom dollar."

"It's all a business," stated Karsten, adding that for these sites, "the only thing that matters at the end of the day is how much money they're going to make."

Aftab and her militia want to make sure that more kids like Victoria Lindsay are not hurt in the future.

"[Kids] don't understand that these are people who are seriously hurt, they could be killed, and there are serious consequences for what they're doing," said Aftab.

And more kids like the eight teenagers who were arrested in conjunction with the Lindsay incident could find themselves behind bars. After all, it's not hard for the police to identify the assailants -- it's all right there on camera for them.

"It surprises me that kids don't realize they're providing law enforcement the best evidence they could get," Cantrell said. "They don't realize this stuff can get into hands they don't want it to get into."

In the future Aftab hopes to see a different type of video posted online -- ones that will show kids the consequences of their actions.

"The videos we need to post are when kids are taken off in handcuffs and being denied acceptance to the colleges they want to go to because they're still serving time in prison," she said.

"We need to have consequences for actions such as this and the consequences need to be as readily available and seen throughout wider audiences like the Internet as the act itself," said Riley.

Riley is also worried about the "loss of civility" and the "lack of remorse" that she sees in some of today's adolescents. One of the arrested Florida teenagers later asked whether she would still be able to go to cheerleading practice.

"I'm most concerned that we're seeing a lack of remorse among these students, not only remorse for what they have done but posting their images doing acts of violence to other individuals," Riley said. "I don't think they realize that these pictures will follow them throughout their lives."

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