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performance crime

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

A performance crime is an illegal act that is committed with the intention of being witnessed by an audience or seeking an audience afterwards. Typically, in contemporary performance crime, the perpetrator records video of the crime or has someone else record it and then posts the video to a social media site such as Facebook, YouTube or Twitter.

Performance crime can take many different forms. Examples include a hacker documenting a cyberattack taking down a website, an attacker recording a sexual assault and a teenager videoing a cyberbullying offense. Of particular concern are violent crimes. In April 2017, Steve Stephens uploaded a video to Facebook of the murder of Robert Godwin Sr., an elderly man who was seemingly chosen randomly. The video was live on the site for two hours before it was removed, and the case raised public awareness of performance crimes.

Other examples:

In 2013, an Ottawa teenager made bomb threat calls to schools all over North America. He shared details of the calls in a series of posts on Twitter, leading to his arrest.

In 2015, Vester Lee Flanagan recorded his shooting of two former co-workers and posted video on Twitter.

In 2017, four people in Chicago livestreamed the torture of a teenager to Facebook.

Criminals seeking attention is nothing new. Ray Surette, a professor in the department of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida, wrote about the phenomenon in his paper, "Performance Crime and Justice." As Surette said in an interview with ABC News after the murder of Robert Godwin, there have “always been people committing crimes with an audience in mind.” What is different now, however, is the ease with which social media allows those people to get their documentation of crimes in front of a large audience.

According to Surette, factors in the development of performance crime include the rise of celebrity culture in the 20th century, extending to celebrity criminals, the goal of achieving celebrity and the prevalence of social media. Surette further argues that, in the mind of the perpetrator, the existence of an audience for performance crimes legitmizes them and makes them socially acceptable. Even more worrisome, it may have the same effect on the audience.

This was last updated in May 2017

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