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Why Do Violent Videos Go Viral?

Atlanta-area school districts are struggling to contain a wave a violent videos posted to Instagram by students. Why do people love to watch these brutal snippets?
A fist-fight between Lord Brougham and Lord Melbourne as Peachum and Lockit. An early example of fights gone viral? (Photo: John Doyle/Wikimedia Commons)

A fist-fight between Lord Brougham and Lord Melbourne as Peachum and Lockit. An early example of fights gone viral? (Photo: John Doyle/Wikimedia Commons)

School administrators in Atlanta are trying to shut down Instagram accounts documenting hundreds of brawls between Clayton County middle and high school students. Clayton was one of four suburban counties within the Atlanta metropolitan area that had Instagram pages dedicated to violence between students, the largest of which, called Clayco.fights, had tens of thousands of followers. Hoping to prevent the spread of future videos, school officials are now scrambling to update rules to restrict students’ use of the Internet. Not surprisingly, students caught on video fighting on school grounds may be suspended, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.

Violent videos often go viral, and despite the fact that Instagram itself has policies prohibiting violent content, the fight pages are hard to suppress. When the first Clayco.fights page was shut down, another similarly titled page popped up to replace it (shrewdly adding another 's' to "fights"). The International Business Times reports:

The brief clips depict brawls with students punching each other and pulling hair in school parking lots, gymnasiums and classrooms. Clayco.fights, the largest and most notorious account with 384 posts and more than 30,000 followers, could not be accessed on Instagram Thursday morning. But a new profile immediately sprung up in its place: Clayco.fightss had 36 posts and more than 3,200 followers as of 10 a.m.

So why do we like violence so much? A look at athletics, which have played an integral role in society since the earliest civilizations, may hold some potential answers. While the games we enjoy have evolved over time, most of our modern-day sports share one commonality with their ancient counterparts: violence. Professional wresting, boxing, and mixed martial arts all trace back to ancient combat sports, R. Todd Jewell, Afsheen Moti, and Dennis Coates wrote in 2012, in their book Violence and Aggression in Sporting Contests. Even in sports where violence is not the end goal, it often occupies a central role. The National Hockey League for example, believes that violence is not just unavoidable, but “therapeutic and cathartic in minor forms,” Jewell, Moti, and Coates wrote.

The authors lay out a few theories about why we love violent sports, but those ideas could also provide some insight into the persistence of these Instagram accounts for schoolyard fights.


The asserting dominance theory holds that those watching the action—be it a football game or a backyard brawl—may be living vicariously through the event participants. When we watch a hockey player slam an opponent into the boards, or our peers punch each other on the playground, we can sometimes feel as if we made the play (or threw the punch) ourselves. At the same time, we can take comfort in the knowledge that just watching the violence play out is harmless; we did no wrong, and are therefore safe from any consequences or retaliation.


Some social scientists believe that violent sports may actually curb aggressive behaviors in both athletes and spectators. The theory is that humans build up “destructive energy,” which playing or watching aggressive sports can help release. “The theory also suggests that the more violent the sport is, the greater the pleasure received for both the participant and the viewer,” Jewell, Moti, and Coates wrote. But, the authors caution, in some cases violence can also serve to build up destructive energy. That explains the tendency of some sports fans to commit violent and destructive acts post-game (cough, soccer hooligans, cough), and perhaps why the violent school fight videos lead to, well, more violent videos.


Research on mice has shown that, like food, sex, and drugs, violence can activate the reward pathways in our brains. LiveScience reported on a study from 2008 in which researchers instigated an initial skirmish by introducing an intruder mouse into the cage of another male mouse. When the resident rodent was given the opportunity to return the intruder to his own cage by poking a target, the mouse consistently chose to bring the intruder back and continue the fight. But when the scientists treated the mice with dopamine blockers to inhibit the reward pathway, the mice were less likely to bring the intruders back for another round. The study indicates that the mice found aggression itself rewarding, which has important implications for humans as well, given that the reward pathway in humans and mice are remarkably conserved.


The rise of social media, coupled with our predilection for gruesome entertainment, has made violent videos hard for school officials to contain. Keeping students off the Internet is one strategy, but there is perhaps a better way to prevent them from posting these videos: figuring out a more effective way to keep students from fighting in the first place.

*Special thanks to Muriel Vega for suggesting Atlanta as a point of coverage.