Facebook hoped that the raw immediacy of live-streaming might help coax its users to share more about their personal lives. On Wednesday, a woman in the passenger seat of the car where Philando Castile lay dying, shot in the arm by a Minnesota cop during a traffic stop, used Facebook Live to show the world the shooting’s gory aftermath.
When Facebook introduced Facebook Live, it probably was anticipating safe viral moments such as Chewbacca Mom or the Buzzfeed watermelon explosion. Instead, Facebook found that livestreaming is a lot more than that. Like real life, livestreaming can have a light side and a dark side. It also has a long history of use as a powerful medium for accountability. This is what Diamond Reynolds did Wednesday.
Reynolds’s video disappeared from Facebook last night, before reappearing with a warning that it showed “graphic” imagery. Facebook later said that the video was temporarily taken down because of a “technical glitch,” without explaining further. But the sudden loss of access raises questions about whether Facebook is ready to judge which raw, visceral moments its users broadcast may stay on the site, and which will go.
Throw in Facebook’s long history of cultivating a feeling of safety within its blue-and-white virtual walls through unpredictable moderation and aggressive content policies, and the complications of Facebook’s new commitment to livestreaming become clear.
No matter how much Mark Zuckerberg chews on the word “raw,” it will never be fully macerated in the maw of Silicon Valley buzzwords. “Raw” can mean a mom in her car, delighted by an impulse buy at Kohl’s. It can also mean a man dying in his car as a police officer shouts expletives while pointing a gun at his body. It can also mean a broadcast suicide or rape, seemingly for the sake of getting “likes.” Platforms such as Facebook Live and Twitter-owned Periscope have hosted livestreams of all of the above in a span of just a few months.
Here’s what Reynolds broadcast Wednesday night: Castile lay bleeding, an officer screamed expletives, seemingly both to himself and to the passengers in the car. She kept filming. The officer shouted: “I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his hands up.” “You told him to get his ID, sir, his driver’s license,” Reynolds responded, in a calm tone. “Oh my God. Please don’t tell me he’s dead.”
“Please, Jesus, don’t tell me that he’s gone. Please don’t tell me he’s gone,” Reynolds said. “Please don’t tell me, officer, that you just did this to him. You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.”
A pause, and the officer says, “Get the female passenger out.” She leaves the car, her phone hits the ground as she’s ordered to her knees, and you hear the snap of handcuffs. You also hear her daughter, held by an officer at the scene, screaming. Many viewers saw this after the fact, as a replay. It is worth repeating that others, including those who knew Castile and Reynolds personally, could see it happening to them live.
Reynolds came back to livestreaming Thursday, this time showing the world her grief. “It’s my first time crying since all of this happened,” Reynolds said, livestreaming from a different Facebook account (Reynolds said that the police took her phone as evidence) while surrounded by reporters, friends and activists. She said she was trying to be strong for her daughter.
“It could have been you. It could have been you, or you, or you,” Reynolds said. “It could have been any of us. I want justice.” Live on Facebook, Reynolds was comforted as she grieved. She broadcast as her friends prayed for her and with her.
Before Reynolds, livestreaming was already an established tool for accountability. Tim Pool’s 20-hour live broadcast from the day Occupy Wall Street protesters were removed from their downtown New York City encampment in 2011 helped demonstrate to activists that livestreaming had potential as an alternative to depending on cable news coverage. Pool became a first-of-his-kind “streamer,” a presence at protests who, often through UStream or Livestream, helped bring people who wanted to know what was going on at a demonstration at that moment into the crowd.
“The ability to broadcast events in real-time allows for the viewing of images and events that would otherwise be filtered like incidents of police brutality or government abuse,” Benjamin Burroughs, an assistant professor of emerging media at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, said in a recent email to The Washington Post. “One thing that [live-streaming] can do is create an increased sense of proximity to distant suffering and images of violence.”
As Facebook’s users continue to stream their varieties of experience through Live, the company is going to have to make decisions about which of these the world can — or can’t — see, particularly when those experiences contain both graphic imagery and vitally important information. Reynolds’s stream is an example of this, and of its power: It transformed how the story of Castile’s death — and her grieving of his death — is told. Her perspective from inside that car became that of her viewers, and she relied on no one else to tell it.