Dallas, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile: should Facebook show violent videos?

Facebook’s live streaming video allows people to broadcast life – and death – for the world to see, raising a new and complex set of ethical questions

Three days in America. Three mobile phone videos depicting violent deaths.

The killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and then a bloody shootout in Dallas, join a growing canon of brutal imagery either instantly broadcast or rapidly distributed on Facebook.

It’s a long way from exploding watermelons and Chewbacca masks, the videos that brought Facebook’s nascent live video streaming service into the popular consciousness when it launched in April. “When you interact live, you feel connected in a more personal way,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced at the time. “This is a big shift in how we communicate, and it’s going to create new opportunities for people to come together.”

His optimism gave no hint of the distress and outrage that would follow as the service inevitably grew to reflect the death, as well as the lives, of some of its users. But social media companies encouraging users to broadcast live video are now facing a new, complex and particularly fraught set of ethical questions.

By late Wednesday night, the video filmed by Diamond Reynolds of her boyfriend’s murder had been viewed 2.5m times when it briefly disappeared. After an outcry that the video – just the latest evidence of African Americans being killed by police officers in the US – had been removed, Facebook reinstated it.

A spokesperson told the Guardian that it was “temporarily down due to a technical glitch for about an hour” and that Facebook “restored the video as soon as [they] were able to identify the mistake”. In addition, it put a warning on the video and marked it as “disturbing”, which means that rather than playing automatically, a user must click on the video in order to agree to watch it.

Likewise Michael Bautista’s Facebook Live video of the Dallas shootout, in which five police officers were fatally shot, had been viewed 5.1m times at the time of writing but with a warning about graphic imagery that had been added overnight.

Diamond Reynolds, girlfriend of Philando Castile, broadcast the aftermath of his shooting on Facebook.
Diamond Reynolds, girlfriend of Philando Castile, broadcast the aftermath of his shooting on Facebook. Photograph: Adam Bettcher/Reuters

Facebook’s community standards appear to recognize the political significance of these types of videos. “In many instances, when people share this type of content, they are condemning it or raising awareness about it,” it reads.

Zuckerberg posted his own statement about Castile’s shooting, saying: “The images we’ve seen this week are graphic and heartbreaking, and they shine a light on the fear that millions of members of our community live with every day. While I hope we never have to see another video like Diamond’s, it reminds us why coming together to build a more open and connected world is so important – and how far we still have to go.”

But these videos call up old debates about the ethics of representation. Does increasing the visibility of violence lead to justice for the victims of violence? Does the video itself constitute a form of redress? Does consuming such imagery sensitize and politicize viewers? Or does it exhaust us – or worse, encourage a perverse kind of voyeurism?

In short, should these kind of videos be produced, watched and circulated?

Addressing the risks

Since Twitter launched Periscope Live in March 2015, Facebook Live started in April 2016 and new live streaming app live.ly reached the top of the iTunes App Store, it is clear these companies will need mechanisms to address the risks of showing certain kinds of content.

“We do understand and recognize that there are unique challenges when it comes to content and safety for Live videos,” a Facebook spokeswoman said. “It’s a serious responsibility, we work hard to strike the right balance between enabling expression while providing a safe and respectful experience.”

She added that Facebook notifies law enforcement officials when a piece of reported content is violent or indicates someone’s life is in danger. “We also suggest people contact law enforcement agencies or emergency services themselves if they see something about to happen that might require the authorities to intervene,” although she said the company will not discuss specific cases.

One Facebook employee who worked closely on Facebook Live, who asked not to be named, said the company had been extremely concerned about maintaining community standards from the beginning.

A Facebook video of the Dallas shootout, in which five police officers died, was viewed millions of times within hours.
A Facebook video of the Dallas shootout, in which five police officers died, was viewed millions of times within hours. Photograph: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

“There was general consensus that we did not need to introduce new standards,” he said, explaining that Live would be governed by Facebook’s general community standards for video. However, he added: “Because of the viral nature of live video everyone felt that we needed to have a quicker turnaround time in how fast stuff gets detected and taken down.”

“We needed to get to it as quick as possible even while it was still being streamed.” Most video content takes about 24 hours for moderators to check. Facebook has three mechanisms for moderating live and pre-recorded videos, the employee said. First, ordinary users can flag content as inappropriate. Second, the company employees a “huge” enforcement team – which was actually increased to deal with the introduction of live video. Finally, Facebook has various automated systems for detecting inappropriate content.

The Facebook Live team discussed whether live video needed more moderation than pre-recorded video, concluding that there were two main differences: distribution is different because people are notified when friends “go live” and tend to share the content more rapidly, and secondly the content is often more “raw”.Periscope relies on similar mechanisms to enforce its community standards, but also recently shifted to a moderation process where users can vote on whether material is inappropriate or not. “The team found that the community aspect seemed to be most effective. If it’s offending a group of people, that’s more reliable than if it’s offending just one,” said a company spokesperson.

Is more visibility better?

Anna Lauren Hoffmann, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California at Berkeley who researches and teaches information studies, stresses that the conflict over live video and community standards reflects a broader characteristic of the Facebook worldview: their “ideology of radical transparency”.

“They believe that a world that is transparent is a better world,” said Hoffmann. “They would argue that these videos cause change in the world by creating more visibility.” While she recognizes the merits of this argument, she also stresses: “At the same time that fails to recognize the position of those who would be most vulnerable to that kind of content, the most traumatized. And that’s not really a point of view that Facebook is good at assuming.”

She feels Facebook could find better, more considered ways to deal with these complex cultural and ethical issues. “There are ways that might be slower than Facebook would like, they might not yield results that Facebook would like but they would ultimately be more humane and thoughtful.”

Anna Lauren Hoffmann: ‘Facebook would argue that these videos cause change in the world by creating more visibility.’
Anna Lauren Hoffmann: ‘Facebook would argue that these videos cause change in the world by creating more visibility.’ Photograph: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Jade Davis is a scholar of media, technology, and culture based in New York who has written critically about how the murder of African Americans is depicted in the media. “The shadow archive has gone mainstream and people are eating it up in front of [other] people,” she said. “Community standards online don’t matter. The images have permeated culture beyond digital spaces by moving to mainstream news sites and now, as of this morning, the local news stations who also choose to show the videos with three-second warning for people preparing for their morning commute.”“It is disgustingly evocative for both those who get a thrill out of it and those who are disgusted by it,” she said. “It is the sort of thing humans have always gone out of their way to see. We just get to see people ... push it on to us more clearly now that it is tied to money making platforms.”

Mychal Denzel Smith,activist and author of Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, expressed ambivalence about the usefulness of such documents of extrajudicial killing. “The videos are crucial for documenting this violence, but insufficient for changing it. Black communities have known this is the way police deal with black people for generations, so it isn’t enlightening for us ... But even for the white people who may be sympathetic, what these videos seem to do is reaffirm the distant from their lived experience. This becomes the tragedy and trauma of black life in America, the thing that keeps happening to black people.

“And so long as sympathetic white people feel no more responsibility than watching the videos, then nothing changes.”


Moira Weigel in San Francisco

The GuardianTramp

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