A 15-year old girl was gangraped in front of an online audience in Chicago. Her assault was broadcasted on Facebook live by the assaulters and watched by at least 40 viewers at a time, but nobody contacted the police.
The video has been taken down and police are looking for six suspects and have taken one into custody.
To find out the identities of the viewers, investigators would have to subpoena Facebook and show proof of a direct link to the crime, police said. In USA, it is not illegal to watch such a video or to fail to report it to police.
Facebook has declined to comment on the incident specifically but said it takes its responsibility to keeping its users safe very seriously.
But the concerning fact is the voyeuristic nature of this crime that is played out in front of a silent audience. This incident is hardly the first of its kind. Earlier, two fatal shootings and the torturing of a differently-abled person was streamed live on Facebook. But the pressing question is why didn’t the audience intervene?
Being a silent bystander to a crime is called Genovese syndrome. It's the phenomenon described by psychologists that the more people who are watching an attack or some perilous situation befall a victim, the less likely any one of them will intervene.
Multiple studies in the 1960s and since then made other observations, including that bystanders were even less likely to intervene if they were strangers than if they were friends. Some studies suggested crowds were less likely to act because each individual rationalises that someone else in the crowd would act or already had.
The Law in General
There is no all-encompassing legal obligation in the United States for a crime witness to intervene or call police. But there are exceptions to that idea, dubbed the no-duty rule. Many states have laws requiring intervention when the victim of an ongoing attack is a child.
The relationship of the witness to the victim is also a factor in assessing criminal or civil liability: Bosses may have a duty to intervene on behalf of employees, teachers for students and spouses for spouses.
A Long History
The legal and ethical questions surrounding when and under what circumstances someone must help date back to ancient times.
Some state laws that spell out witness obligations and liabilities are called good Samaritan laws. They are also sometimes referred as duty-to-rescue laws and duty-to-report laws.
Among the best known recent instances of witness inaction happened in 1964, when Kitty Genovese was fatally stabbed outside her New York City apartment. Reports at the time alleged that dozens of witnesses saw the attack or heard the young woman scream, but did nothing.
Few if any states have amended their laws to incorporate the phenomena of witnessing crimes online, explained Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA who has studied the issue. In theory, he says, laws that apply to in-person witnesses could be applied to social media witnesses.
But a major complicating factor is whether internet witnesses can accurately assess what they see on their screens.
"It's even harder to determine if a crime is real or not," he said. Most internet users are used to seeing odd or surreal depictions and manipulated videos.
Some state laws that make witnesses liable require that they were actually at the scene of the crime. That could not apply to someone watching from miles away.
(With inputs from AP)