Turning on your webcam as you adjust your professional top and hide your slouchy bottoms has become a frequent routine since March 2020, with meetings and classes moving to Zoom as a result of the pandemic. Across different households, people turn on their webcams and dive into the “new normal” landscape of digital gathering and screen sharing. Households across America all look a little different with people figuring out their workspace, high schoolers taking online tests, six-year-old’s struggling to work a computer, and an elderly man saying, “Can you hear me?”. It has become our new normal. A new normal means new experiences and unfortunately this now means a new form of horrific crime. As people look into the screens of their peers and take a peek into the backgrounds of people’s homes, they have become witnesses to a terrifying backdrop of crime and danger.
Not long ago, the news was flooded with frightening details about social media sites and the trend of live-streaming crimes including, murders, suicides, and torture. Viewers watched these horrifying videos spread like wildfire to thousands of people. Now Zoom, the standard video conferencing platform for professional and education services, has become a space where crime is broadcasted and it’s unlike any other crime online. A whole new wave of evil has entered into the Zoom space all from just routinely logging into a designated digital room.
On Aug 11, 2020, around 8:00 AM, a teacher was left confused as one of her students logged onto a class Zoom session and she could hear an altercation behind the student. The teacher noticed a lot of commotion behind a 10-year-old girl as she shared her screen. The teacher leaned in to listen and heard profanity and screaming, followed by the 10-year-old putting her hands up to her ears. The teacher quickly put the girl on mute so other students wouldn’t hear as the commotion continued.
Shortly after, the screen went black on the student’s computer as a bullet went flying and hit the 10-year-old’s computer screen. At that very same moment, the girl’s mom, Maribel Rosado Morales, was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend, Donald Williams. Williams showed up to the house unannounced and with a gun. He was taken into custody not long after he fled the house.
It’s hard to imagine that Zoom would turn into a platform where disturbing acts of violence are displayed across screens but as the digital landscape continues to grow, so does the new wave of online crime. When people log onto social media platforms and view live-streams, there’s a level of uncertainty that goes into watching the videos as you aren’t in control of the stream. Most live-streaming videos on social media sites are a one-way communication and people aren’t allowed to interject.
On Zoom, everyone is considered a participant in the gathering. Zoom allows people to video chat with one another and allows dialogue and actions to flow freely. There isn’t one “set” person who is live-streaming and people are able to see and hear everyone’s reactions and responses – including murderers. Since crimes have crept into the site, Zoom’s professionalism seems to be turning into a platform of terror.
On May 21, 2020, 72-year-old, Dwight Powers was at home in Long Island and in the middle of a Zoom call with 20 people when they witnessed Powers fall off-screen. The viewers were left confused. Powers’ son, Thomas Scully-Powers grabbed him during his video chat and stabbed him to death. The viewers watched as Scully-Powers, took bed sheets off of Powers’ bed and put them on the ground to possibly cover his dad’s body. Some of the viewers in the Zoom room called 911 and told police what they had witnessed. Scully-Powers fled out the window as officers tried to apprehend him and was later found about a mile from Powers’ home.
These tragic stories aren’t the first to be recognized as part of a larger problem with live-streaming communication and the heinous crimes being committed on them. When Facebook launched their live-streaming service in early 2016, that same year violent crimes, killings, and suicides all erupted onto their site. It didn’t take long before the crimes rolled in and the recorded video of crimes, just continued to pop up on other sites and go viral. Facebook’s original stance on live-streaming was celebrated for raw and authentic broadcasting. But Facebook had no idea that article headlines about their live-streaming service would go from “Live Cupcake Tutorial” to “Man Commits Murder in Hour Long Video.”
An article from The Guardian on criminals committing acts on Facebook Live said, “The allure of attention from online peers, reinforced by immediate feedback in the form of shares, likes and other “engagement” indicators, can be intoxicating. Social media is a new way of bragging and allows those who commit crimes to gain a sense of self-power or self-importance. The audience is larger now and, perhaps, more seductive to those who are committing antisocial acts to fill personal needs of self-aggrandizement.”
Zoom isn’t a social media site where there’s an attention seeking and “like” factor but it hasn’t stopped similar criminality from taking place on the platform. So far, the murders happening over Zoom have been unintentional and unplanned without the murderers seeking those intoxicating feedback needs. However, the bigger concern of the new crimes unfolding over Zoom is that they have now breached into our lives when we’re actively choosing to have a private gathering and limiting the social aspects of it. We aren’t scrolling on our phones or looking for content. Crimes have always managed to seep into every space of our society but it’s different when we’re forced to watch events unfolding in a space where we’re meant to feel safe like work or school…which is a far more sinister crime.