Over the past few months, Facebook has pushed an ad campaign that works to demystify its latest big feature: the ability to stream video, live. One recent ad reads: “Curious about going Live? You can’t go wrong! 💯✔” In the accompanying video, Facebook assures its users that it’s easy to stream live when you don’t think you have much to show. “Don’t overthink it,” They advise. “Seriously.”
Based on the ad campaign, we know that Facebook wants its users to go live “when you have something to say, and you just need to say it out loud,” or when “you have a hidden talent, and want to make it not-so-hidden.” Facebook wants Chewbacca Mom, quirky vlogs, and friendships lived live and on camera.
“You’re doing great!” one recent ad reassures. “And even if you’re not, your friends will probably still think you’re awesome.”
Jarring contrasts to Facebook’s optimistic vision for our lives, streamed online to our friends, occur often, when someone decides to show graphic violence. This is what happened in Chicago this week, when four people, mostly teenagers, used Facebook Live to broadcast themselves torturing and taunting a young, mentally disabled man.
They cut his scalp and hair with a knife and left him bleeding. He was punched and slapped while bound in the corner of a room, terrified. They yelled “F‑‑‑ Donald Trump” and “F‑‑‑ white people” as they did this; all four now face hate-crime charges.
Although this particular act of live-streamed violence has become a major story with a political context, violence on socially networked live video is not uncommon these days. Last week, a woman died while broadcasting on Facebook Live. Her family wants to know why none of her viewers called 911. On Periscope — Twitter’s live-streaming app — a teenager streamed the rape of a friend earlier this year and has been accused of doing it for attention. In June, a man streaming on Facebook Live appeared to broadcast his own murder. A French woman broadcast her own suicide on Periscope.
Facebook, like other live-streaming apps, has rules about what is and is not allowed on their platforms. But as we’ve explained before, its almost impossible to moderate those streams in real time. Because of that, no matter what companies like Facebook hope, there’s always the possibility that someone will open up Facebook and start streaming themselves torturing another human being.
“As soon as live-streaming was a possibility, it has been used for positive uses such as broadcasting information (things like disasters, public relations and mobile journalism) or protesting (police brutality, etc.) as part of what I have called civic streaming,” Benjamin Burroughs, assistant professor of emerging media at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said in an email. And while plenty of people use Facebook Live to connect with their social network in the way the company intended, “the public also used live-streaming platforms to stream acts such as fights and crimes being enacted.”
Over the summer, Diamond Reynolds broadcast via Facebook the dying moments of her boyfriend Philando Castile, just after he was shot by a police officer during a traffic stop. Facebook first removed the video, before reposting it with a warning about the images it contained. It then announced that it would make decisions about whether to keep or remove graphic video content broadcast or posted to Facebook based on its context: Is the video condemning or “raising awareness” about the act? Or is it celebrating it?
In this week’s Chicago case, Facebook decided to remove the video. “We do not allow people to celebrate or glorify crimes on Facebook and have removed the original video for this reason. In many instances, though, when people share this type of content, they are doing so to condemn violence or raise awareness about it. In that case, the video would be allowed,” the company said in an emailed statement Thursday.
When asked what the company did in the early stages of Facebook Live to prepare for its potential use as a virtual crime scene, the company referred us to its post from July outlining its context-based policies.
Now Facebook has, against its intentions, become the host for interventions into larger conversations about what sort of violence we should be seeing and discussing, and how to interpret those moments. “Live-streaming can evoke a great deal of emotion in viewers of the platform because of the immediacy and proximity to acts of violence or distant suffering. That emotion can push people to act positively or negatively,” Burroughs said.
He added: “In the case of live-streaming acts of police brutality, a space is opened with the possibility of talking about meaningful criminal justice reform. This latest live-streaming of violence pushed an agenda of hate.”