Viral attack videos in schools could be part of motive for violence, experts say

Cape Breton Regional Police are investigating an alleged assault at a high school after a video of the incident went viral. Submitted

As police in Cape Breton investigate a video appearing to show a violent incident in a high school locker room, some experts and educators argue social media firms should act more swiftly to remove the disturbing images from their networks.

A video that was circulated on social media depicts a young student being attacked by another student at Riverview High School in Sydney, N.S.

The school’s principal, Joe Chisholm, says the victim in the video is “OK” and suspensions have been handed out.

READ MORE: Cape Breton police investigating alleged assault at Riverview High School after viral video

However, Chisholm adds the school community is unsettled, both by the incident itself and the video’s distribution in unedited form.

He says in an interview that both the school and police have reached out to social media companies, including Facebook and Instagram, to urge them remove the video from their networks.

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A spokeswoman for the Cape Breton Regional Police says the incident was reported to authorities on Wednesday.

“We cannot comment on any more details of an active investigation; we will provide an update once investigators have completed their work,” wrote Desiree Magnus.

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“In the interest of the mental wellness of those involved, we ask that there please be a stop to any further sharing of the video.”

Wayne MacKay, the author of a report on bullying in Nova Scotia and a professor emeritus at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University, says he fears such videos can play a role in motivating school violence.

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“One of the disturbing things about this incident is somebody decided to carefully capture the whole thing rather than intervening to help the poor young victim in the case,” MacKay said.

In the clip, the assailant appears at one point to lift up the victim and drop him on his head and shoulders as a group of other students watch.

Aimee Morrison, a professor of literature at University of Waterloo who specializes in social media, said the video is an example of bullying images that go viral and multiply the original harm.

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Morrison also noted it’s unclear from the clip whether those involved were unaware of being filmed, or whether the video maker was complicit in the attack.

“It could be one student beating up a person and another person who has a separate idea to film it,” she said.

However the videos emerge, Morrison and MacKay argue that social media firms should eliminate such unedited violence from their networks as it appears.

MacKay said the companies’ response often “reactive and it’s complaint driven…. They should have resources monitoring the kinds of images and stories that are out there.”

A spokesman for Facebook Canada said the company has “taken action to prevent minors from watching this video,” in accordance with the company’s policies against harassment and bullying.

“In this case, we cover videos of physical bullying or violence against minors in a fight context shared with a condemning caption with a warning screen … allowing for people to watch this content if they choose while making it unavailable to minors,” David Troya-Alvarez said in an email.

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Chisholm said his school has clear policies against the distribution of such imagery – some of which were the result of MacKay’s study and recommendations published in 2013.

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“Students that promote this type of violence by sharing it – we will deal with it. There’s discipline for doing this,” said Chisholm.

He said the school encourages students to contact the province’s anti-cyberbullying unit – known as Cyberscan – if violent or intimate videos or online images are being distributed.

“But it’s not just the students we need to educate. We need to educate people using the social networks. We need to get the social networks to take down these videos,” he said.

Morrison also said there is a “grey zone” where part of the video may be edited and replayed when it is newsworthy.

“There may be value to having bits of it anonymized and excerpted in the news media, but there is no value in having it as a whole circulate around when the person suffering hasn’t given their consent for it to be shared,” she said.

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The professor also said there may be social media videos made where citizens show police violence or crimes occurring that “usefully shine a light” on incidents that society needs to grapple with.

“Those are different from a person filming a fight in a high school locker room where the goal is to glorify the victor and humiliate the victim…. There’s not much social value to that.”

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Zach Churchill, the province’s education minister, said he couldn’t watch the entire video as he found it deeply disturbing.

“It can hurt people for a long period of time and extend the trauma of these kinds of events,” he said.

The Cape Breton-Victoria Regional Centre for Education released a statement condemning the violence, saying it had “shaken our entire school community.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 6, 2020.

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