Facebook, TikTok and crime: Experts say the digital age is allowing crime to be seen LIVE

Criminal justice researchers say that crime is being seen in a new way in digital age

Illustration by Henry Keller.
Illustration by Henry Keller. (KSAT)

SAN ANTONIO – The last moments of Felix Santos’ life were live-streamed on Facebook.

What started as a routine traffic stop evolved into a chase that spanned into Atascosa County and ended in Santos’ fatal shooting death near a Bexar County elementary school on Jan. 26, 2021.

The chase started in Pleasanton, just south of San Antonio, when police tried to arrest Santos, who was wanted on a parole violation for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. According to Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, Santos had prior criminal convictions.

The chase started around 10 a.m. in Pleasanton, south of San Antonio, on Tuesday when police tried to pull over a pickup truck to arrest the driver, Santos, who was wanted on a parole violation for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. (Copyright 2020 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

Just before his death, Santos, 48, went live on his Facebook from inside his pickup truck. In the striking video, Santos said his goodbyes to loved ones as he waved a gun out the window at Bexar and Atascosa County deputies who were chasing behind.

The emotional video has since been deleted by the social media company, but it is far from an isolated incident. Other instances of people streaming chases or other criminal activities have seemingly exploded across social media in recent years. Take, for example, the hundreds of Trump supporters who are facing federal charges largely based on evidence that was broadcast by the actors themselves during the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Crime as entertainment

Jiletta Kubena, a professor of criminology and the criminal justice chair of the Applied Social and Cultural Sciences Department at Our Lady of the Lake University, called the incident with Santos and others like it a new trend in the digital age.

“We know that crime as a commodity or as entertainment has grown exponentially. It’s always been popular — there’s always been crime mystery novels, TV shows, crime documentaries — but now it’s almost like one of our main forms of entertainment is crime, which is disturbing on a lot of levels,” Kubena said. “But instead of just consuming it, now that we have social media and lots of social media, people are now becoming content creators.”

Kubena said that the new technology and commodification of crime have opened the floodgates for people online to showcase criminal behavior and, to some degree, chase fame with an online platform.

“We’re talking about people that never had a platform before. Now they do. It’s an easy platform and it’s constant creation of content” Kubena said. “... and the large amount [of content] that is being live-streamed on these [social media] platforms that is unethical or actually illegal is almost impossible, if not impossible, to control right now.”

The trend is also fueled by psychology, she said.

If a person is feeling ostracized or just trying to make sense of the world around them, Kubena said, they often go online in search of a community that they can relate to, similar to how people find community and stability in criminal gangs.

“I mean psychology 101, people have to connect with other people. It’s part of our mental health and our mental well-being is having a social connection with others,” she said.

The typical human need for connection can be a driving force behind why individuals like Santos turn to social media outlets in their final moments, she said, because the platforms allow ordinary people to reach an audience and disseminate a message.

“It’s free. There are no limitations on this,” Kubena said.

Crime evolves with technology

Sean Patrick Roche, an assistant professor in the School of Criminal Justice & Criminology at Texas State University, said livestreaming criminal activity is a product of crime evolving with technology.

“So, the technology itself creates or mediates the offense. Same kind of thing with, you know, starting in the 1970s and 80s, people start to have like 8-track players in their car, CD players in their cars. Well, that’s when we start to see the theft of 8-track players and CD players from cars,” Roche said. “So, the more technology you have and the more people’s lives are lived via that technology, you are, of course, going to start seeing criminal offending in the context of those things.”

Capturing individual events like Santos’ death is also rooted in the evolution of cameras themselves, Roche said.

“I take a video right now and then I can immediately post it on Twitter, Facebook — I could go live on Facebook,” Roche said. “Snapchat, TikTok, any number of other things, like people can now immediately take their experience, record it and blast it out potentially to hundreds, thousands of people, and that’s a really, really recent and really new development.”

Specifically, in the context of policing, Roche said that the video of Rodney King being brutally beaten by Los Angeles Police Department officers in the early ‘90s changed how the public viewed police-civilian interactions. In that instance, a hobbyist cameraman caught the incident on tape by chance.

At the same time, he said, technology has made police work more visible throughout the years both internally through body cameras and externally through cell phone video captured by bystanders.

“Right now, we’ve gone from that to everyone, literally, everybody carrying around the ability to take video and picture all the time and it has impacted -- it has made police work very visible,” Roche said. “Keep in mind, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of police-civilian interactions every week, every year and most of them, 95% of them, probably occur with no injury or incident related to the civilian or to the officer.

“So, all of which is to say that as technology changes, the offense is changing as we live our lives more and more and more online. It totally makes sense that in a variety of different ways, more of that is going to be captured,” Roche said. “Whether it’s relatively low-level police-civilian interactions, or whether it’s highly dramatic, violent car chases or something like that, it’s going to be more and more likely that these things get captured on video because we’re all carrying these things around all the time.”

Social media policies

According to Facebook’s policy on publicizing crime, the platform prohibits users from “facilitating, organizing, promoting, or admitting to certain criminal or harmful activities targeted at people, businesses, property or animals.” And it allows people to “debate and advocate for the legality of criminal and harmful activities, as well as draw attention to harmful or criminal activity that they may witness or experience as long as they do not advocate for or coordinate harm.”

TikTok’s user policy states that it is “committed to cooperating with law enforcement while respecting the privacy and other rights of its users.” Additionally, TikTok has “internal policies and procedures governing how TikTok handles and responds to law enforcement requests.”

KSAT reached out to both companies for comment on this story and both declined to respond.

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About the Author:

Jakob Rodriguez is a digital journalist at KSAT 12. He's a graduate of Texas State University, where he served as the editor-in-chief of the student-run newspaper, The University Star.