The killing is the latest incident in a growing spate of cases in which Facebook users have broadcast rape, torture, and suicide for the world to see, prompting experts to question whether the company is doing enough to contain the video service’s so-called dark side. We asked John Wihbey, assistant professor of journalism and new media at Northeastern, to weigh in on the pros and cons of live-streaming and the impact it’s having on the mainstream news media.
The Washington Post published a story on Sunday’s murder under the headline “Facebook wanted ‘visceral’ live video. It’s getting live-streaming killers and suicides.” To put it simply, is Facebook Live worth the trouble it’s generating for the world’s largest social media network?
It is interesting that Mark Zuckerberg, in speaking with BuzzFeed during the mass rollout of Facebook Live, used the words “visceral” and “raw” several times in his interview. I have to think he and his team must have anticipated some of this.
Let’s take the business case first. Facebook has determined that live video adds an important new dimension for engagement on the platform. It has been worried about users not contributing enough original content, which really helps drive engagement and time on site. An attractive and fun new live video function helps to solve that problem.
Facebook Live is also a logical extension of technology trends. YouTube has been such a massive, global success. The next step is live streaming for everyone, a kind of mass, real-time self-communication capacity. This allows Facebook, because of the scale of its user base, to become the preeminent platform for video of this nature. It allows the company an advantage over competitors Google and Snapchat, which is increasingly Facebook’s big potential rival.
Weighing the social costs, such as the homicide incident at issue this past week, and benefits, I still believe that Facebook Live is worth the trade-offs. It has played an important role in bringing issues to public attention that otherwise might not surface, including the protests at Standing Rock over the Dakota Access Pipeline and questionable use of police force against citizens.
The case that worries me the most is suicide or attempted suicide, as there have been many broadcasts of this nature on Facebook Live already. And the academic literature tells us that associated media images and reports can lead to contagion effects and copycat incidents. I’m not sure there is a way to prevent this, but Facebook could make a big push around mental health awareness in the immediate wake of such incidents, and it probably needs to ramp up its algorithms to help with this.
Facebook summarized its strategy for responding to objectionable content in a public post on Monday, saying that “we are constantly exploring ways that new technologies can help us make sure Facebook is a safe environment.” In addition to refining its approach to content moderation, what else could Facebook do to ensure that more bad actors do not take advantage of its live-streaming service?
First, Facebook needs to make the mechanism for reporting of objectionable content much more obvious and intuitive. The relevant button and user interface navigation for reporting are not clear to first-time users. Second, I think the company may need to put a delay on the archived video from live broadcasts. Right now, after the broadcast ends the video is automatically posted to the user’s profile. A one- or two-hour delay rule would mean that although you could still broadcast something objectionable in real time, it couldn’t immediately be passed around and go viral. Perhaps users could then effectively “earn” the right to archive content immediately by generating community approvals and building a reputation. Third, Facebook needs to be transparent about actions it takes and publicly state its community standards—which still are not well or widely understood—over and over again to users.
I really liked part of the Facebook team’s response to the recent homicide incident in question; the company admitted there was a big problem and provided a timeline of its actions. Facebook needs to be transparent, in my view, about all acts of filtering and, to put it very crudely, any censorship of content. It needs to say, “This is what’s unacceptable, and this is what we did about it. What do you think?” We can’t solve all of the future problems associated with democratized communication tools like this, but we can build a robust, deliberative conversation about evolving norms and values. Facebook can help generate that conversation by being totally open about its practices and asking for community feedback. Ultimately, these norms and values will be embedded in computer code, but we want to influence that code by discussing concrete examples and achieving thoughtful consensus through public discourse. I want Facebook’s user base to write the rules embedded in algorithms, not a few Facebook engineers.
Of course, most people would agree that trying to stop the broadcast of a murder is justified and doesn’t represent censorship in the pejorative sense. But there will be borderline incidents in the future that may involve political speech and yet also be tied to both lethal and non-lethal violence. How will Facebook handle these?
Ultimately, I think Facebook needs to err on the side of openness and free speech, even as it develops more sophisticated algorithms engineered to “listen” for social signals indicating objectionable content.
Live-streaming platforms like Facebook Live, Snapchat, and Meerkat have made it possible for the average user to highlight societal ills en route to generating mainstream news coverage of hot-button issues. As a journalism professor and new media expert, how, in your mind, has the rise of these platforms transformed the news industry?
I was just polling some of my graduate students in the School of Journalism about these issues, and the conclusion among them seemed to be that democratized live-streaming is a net-plus for society, particularly because it is a tool for underrepresented voices to gain mass attention for issues of social justice. I suspect that perspectives and evaluations of live streaming video fall along generational lines, and this millennial generation and the rising generation behind them will prevail in their increasing openness to “visceral” and “raw” content, as Mr. Zuckerberg put it.
Live-streaming platforms have yet to transform the news industry, although many news outlets end up reporting on and amplifying user-generated videos. The public still values, and will likely always value, a layer of interpretation and synthesis around events. Go at any moment to the Facebook Live Map and you’ll see why—it’s a chaotic mix of content. Hence, journalism’s still-vital role in helping people to find relevant information and process it contextually. As people broadcast more live video, the noisiness of the media ecosystem will only increase. It will take awhile for Facebook Live content creators who aren’t already well known to build brands and channels, and to create consumption habits among audiences. There are big opportunities for enterprising journalists on Facebook Live, too.