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OPINION: Crime porn, our fascination with real-time crime footage

Seen the one about the four guys trying to break into a house in Edenvale? What about the six-year-old stealing two cellphones from a shop? And how about that awesome high-speed chase by the cops through the streets of Rosebank? Why does real time CCTV crime footage go viral and why do we watch it?

There's no doubt that the most popular real-time crime footage of the past week was the mugging of SABC contributing editor Vuyo Mvoko and colleagues Chiselda Lewis and Sophie Mokoena outside Millpark Hospital on 10 March. By Sunday night the YouTube upload had attracted almost 2.5 million hits. The actual viewership figures are probably far higher as the clip was carried across a multitude of online platforms as it quickly went viral.

Meanwhile, footage of a six-year-old sneaking off to steal two cellphones from a shop counter while the adults accompanying her distract an assistant had racked up over 200,000 views. At least 400,000 adrenaline junkies had watched the high-speed police chase of several hijackers in Rosebank while Rudi Jeggle's upload of two-part CCTV footage of three burglars attempting unsuccessfully to prise open a sturdy security gate at the entrance to his father's home had also been watched by over 400,000 people.

These are just a few examples of what appears to be a growing preoccupation or fascination with viewing raw, artless and unedited real-time crime footage, particularly in South Africa. There are countless other examples that have become common reference or national talking points.

But what drives this phenomenon - this preoccupation with crime porn - and what purpose might it serve? And why are we doing it?

In a society with atomised viewing tastes and preferences it appears as if the one thing we all have in common is our fear and morbid fascination with crime. It also speaks, perhaps, to a shared national trauma and that this might be a new, albeit perhaps unhealthy and uncontained, form of "collective debriefing". And the internet is the perfect location to do just that - debrief publicly - from the utterly trite (how to fold a fitted sheet) to the profound (does the soul exist?)

But also, might our newfound fascination with crime footage perhaps have to do with remembrance and repetition of trauma, an essential component of the healing process?

We can now, from the comfort of our homes, watch other South Africans become victims of crime. We may view this often horrifying footage, where helpless fellow citizens are mugged, robbed, hijacked or even killed and in that instant think "there by the grace of…". Because so many people have watched the same weekly "top" crime footage, we now have something in common we can talk about around the water cooler and on radio and television talk shows. Years ago, when viewing choices were limited, people would discuss an episode of their favourite soap opera or television series, but today the range of choices makes this difficult.

Through viewing footage we might learn, of course, how criminals operate and find ways to protect ourselves, which is why organisations like Crime Watch upload them.

Or is there something simpler and more mercenary at work?

Viewership numbers of these clips are pretty impressive. Few online news sites - particularly local ones - can hope to lure as many eyeballs with a traditional news report or longer form narratives be they either written or filmed. These CCTV clips are uploaded usually free of charge which is good news for cash-strapped media houses. Gathering and writing news is generally a costly business, so it makes sense that platforms would make use of this type of available footage, cost free. Collating it on one site enables readers/viewers to consume it all in the same space while the host benefits financially from the traffic.

But are we being offered and are we watching these clips because they are popular or have they become popular because news sites are carrying them?

We live in an age of surveillance. There are cameras everywhere, recording even the most mundane day-to-day activities of shoppers in malls and on city streets across the globe. There's a high percentage of cellphone ownership, and people use their phones to capture events - be they incidents of playground bullying or police harassment. The upside is that while the ubiquitous camera might invade our privacy, it also offers us, as citizens, an opportunity to record injustice and abuse.

It was not that long ago that capturing news footage would have required a large crew with cumbersome equipment to be dispatched. Now any event can be, and is, filmed by anyone with a cellphone. It's an instant incarnation of the "home" footage captured by Abraham Zapruder of the assassination of JFK in 1963.

However, it can be problematic (and perhaps even traumatic) to carry footage of this nature without any context, comment or additional original research and reportage. One such example is a disturbing clip of a hijacking and kidnapping in Mayfair that took place in March this year (watched by over 30,000 since it was uploaded by Crime Watch).

Four heavily armed men hold up an unnamed driver and passenger as they pull into the driveway of their home. It is terrifying to watch the victims realise what is happening. The men bundle the driver into the vehicle before driving off with him. And that's it. There is no resolution. We still do not know what happened to the driver, we have not learned who the victims are. They are nameless and faceless, just like all the other nameless victims who are crime statistics, even though we can view them in real life. In the comments thread below the video only one person asks, "What happened to the driver?"

It is as if we either already know or don't really want to know. Experience would lead us to believe he was probably killed. Or that at least we accept is the most likely end to the incident.

Today we have the choice whether we want to view footage of a hostage being tortured or beheaded. Those who post these videos know that some of us might watch and that this will add to the propaganda of their cause.

Does crime footage inadvertently act as propaganda for criminals or does it help those of us traumatised by high levels of crime to locate some measure of control? We just don't know. And until we do, perhaps we should think more carefully before gratuitously posting these.

There is no doubt that the growing popularity of CCTV crime footage serves to heighten anxiety in a society already on a knife-edge. It speaks to our lack of confidence in the police and authorities to protect citizens from criminals or to deal effectively with crime. We binge on crime porn perhaps to desensitise ourselves for that moment when we just might be the next victim. It is the visual equivalent of reading or absorbing the SAS Survival Guide "for any climate, in any situation". An attempt perhaps to overcome an extreme feeling of disempowerment.

It is also a reflection of just how normalised crime and criminal activity is, not only in South Africa but also globally. Or is it that the more desensitised we become, the less likely we are to hold political leaders to account? Just asking.

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.

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