IS YOUTUBE HELPING TO FIGHT CRIME?

The platform is proving an unlikely source of leads for the authorities.


By Michaela Hall: culture Columnist


The online video sharing platform YouTube is well recognised as a place for viral content ranging from singers to crazy cat videos and everything in between.

Anybody can post almost anything on their channels, but YouTube is mainly known for its entertainment value. So what happens when a more serious type of content of a criminal nature is introduced to the platform for discussion?

As of the period 2016-2021, there has been a whopping one point eight six billion reported users of YouTube. In their attraction to this platform, users naturally have an eager curiosity to create, share and reflect on all types of content. A new vein of this video content that is becoming increasingly popular is one that takes a ‘reactionary’ or ‘investigative’ approach.

In this content, users ‘react’ and discuss issues that lead to a deeper exploration. This can often have a tidal effect, with a piece of content sparking another and so on until the platform is saturated with these topics. Brandwatch.com highlights that on mobile alone, YouTube reaches more eighteen to forty-nine-year-olds than any broadcast or cable TV network, and this really illustrates the influence the platform has globally.

The curious nature of the platform goes hand in hand with criminal mysteries and one case with particular viral momentum at the moment is the case of Elisa Lam and the Cecil Hotel. The Netflix documentary released this month ‘Crime Scene: The vanishing at the Cecil Hotel’ has brought to attention the mysterious happenings of 2013 when traveling student Elisa Lam was reported missing. She was last seen at the Cecil Hotel where she was staying in an unnerving piece of lift footage where she was acting irrationally, with strange movements as if she was communicating with someone or something, who wasn’t visible on the footage. The lift doors remained open as Elisa was in and out of the lift for the period of the four-minute video and Elisa suddenly disappeared with no explanation. With no suspected attacker from the footage, this raised all sorts of questions among those who viewed it.

It wasn’t until nineteen days later that Elisa’s body was found in the water tank on top of the hotel but with police investigations still leaving unexplainable elements of the possible logistics, the case is one that is still causing viral discussion.


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A key part of this investigation saw the Los Angeles Police Department take the decision to release this footage to the media and platforms like YouTube.

This was an attempt to gather any sort of information or help. Of course, the internet went crazy with users taking on the role of detective and sharing their opinions, theories, and even their own experiences of the Cecil Hotel (renowned for crime, death, and eery happenings). What this footage did, was create a global network ready to fight crime, working with the authorities to solve the case. A network of everyday people so large, that it wouldn’t be possible without a platform like YouTube.


Indeed, the case certainly isn’t a one-off. In fact, Securityinfowatch.com explains that in America ‘There are nearly 40 police departments posting surveillance video on YouTube, including Kansas City, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, Houston, Tucson, Milwaukee, Portland, and Minneapolis.’ This surveillance is shared similarly, in an attempt to identify and find wanted individuals as well as to give users a platform to input ideas they feel may benefit the investigation.


With this insurgence of investigative activity around crime flooding the YouTube platform, it is clear to see that the app once best known for its entertainment value has gained itself a more serious reputation with incredible societal benefits.

That is, the benefit of bringing authorities and the public together in fighting crime that otherwise may go unsolved with the increasing pressures on police numbers and high crime rates. The platform acts as a new type of infinite surveillance that is more powerful and effective than a police force alone. This is a surveillance of the twenty-first century that empowers the everyday user to work towards social justice and fight crime with no obligation of qualification or rank.


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