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4 years after Fenger: Anatomy of violent viral video

September 23, 2013|By Leonor Vivanco, @lvivanco | RedEye

The Fenger High School sophomore is hit on the head with a wooden board, pummeled with fists and stomped on in a street brawl captured on video. His lifeless body is dragged inside a nearby community center as his attackers flee.

The chaotic two-minute video is as jarring, disturbing and shocking today as it was when it was uploaded to the Internet four years ago.

Tuesday marks the anniversary of a 2009 Chicago Public Schools student attack that stunned the nation: The beating death of Derrion Albert. His killing resulted in a visit from Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder. Five people were convicted, and the tragedy led to the creation of the Safe Passage program, designed to protect students who walk through troubled areas on their way to school.

It wouldn't be the last time Chicagoans would click online and watch a crime being committed.

Video of a homeless man decked in the face on a CTA train platform was uploaded in 2011. Last year, the video a 17-year-old high school student getting punched and kicked in a snowy Bridgeport alley was posted to YouTube. In July 2012, video surfaced on Facebook of 62-year-old Defino Mora being beaten by teens in a West Rogers Park alley. Mora died the next day.

Greater access to technology combined with the practice of posting videos to social media makes viral videos more common. The motivations of those who post the videos and the people who view and share them vary.

Viewers are more likely to spread videos that evoke strong emotions such as anger and disgust, said Rosanna Guadagno, director of the Online Social Influence Laboratory at the University of Alabama.

"When there's a negative shock value, they want to spread it far and wide," she said based on two studies she conducted.

Seeing a visual portrayal of what happens has a much greater effect than reading about it and generates a stronger emotional response, said Arthur Lurigio, psychology and criminal justice professor at Loyola University Chicago.

Viewers watch such violent videos even though they may find the crime to be incomprehensible because the brain is wired to pay attention to something new, not mundane, he said.

"You can't look away from the horrific accidents kind of response. It's because it's novel and it's stimulating," Lurigio said.

Those who post and record violent videos can have different motivations, experts say. Some want to bring the act to the attention of police so justice can be served. Others may enjoy having access to something considered taboo.

When it comes to a criminal specifically recording the crime and posting it himself, Lurigio said, often the perpetrator is guided by the celebrity factor, personal satisfaction and image enhancement.

"That is absolutely for self-promotion, self-aggrandizement and perversely repeating gratification of the incident," he said. "The victimization is what they have to feel temporarily more powerful."

Posting and watching the criminal video allows criminals to relive it and feel good about it as well as imagine other people who see it will be afraid or applaud them, he said.

"It's another way to garner more attention and build up their sense of their definition of masculinity and toughness," Lurigio said.

Still, the video can lead to the identification, arrest and prosecution of those who committed the crime as videos have done in the past.

"It's a poor idea to break the law, but an especially bad idea to break the law and capture it on video," said Hugh Mundy, assistant professor at John Marshall Law School and former federal public defender.

The video can be incriminating and admissible in court, he said.

"If there's video, chances are the government can and will obtain it and there is very little the defendant can do about it, and it's going to be compelling evidence," Mundy said. "You're essentially providing the jury with eyewitness testimony in the form of a video."

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