If you watch rape or murder on Facebook Live, you’re guilty

Opinion: More than 1 million people have watched the killing of Robert Godwin. It’s not just an internet problem. It is a humanity problem

Facebook chief executive  Mark Zuckerberg:  the media was unimpressed by Zuckerberg’s promise to do better regarding live-streaming of attacks. Photograph: AP Photo/Noah Berger

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg: the media was unimpressed by Zuckerberg’s promise to do better regarding live-streaming of attacks. Photograph: AP Photo/Noah Berger

 

A visibly uncomfortable Mark Zuckerberg took to the stage at the Facebook developer conference in San Jose last Tuesday, his eyes darting in the direction of the autocues placed around the stage.

“We have a lot more to do here. And we’re reminded of this this week by the tragedy in Cleveland,” he said, addressing the shooting dead of Robert Godwin Snr by gunman Steve Stephens, who posted a video of the killing on Facebook, and live-streamed himself talking about it. The videos stayed up for nearly three hours before they were removed, raising questions – yet again – about Facebook’s ability to moderate content, particularly active crimes.

“We’ll do all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening,” Zuckerberg continued in the same stilted fashion, before jumping off to a topic with which he clearly felt a lot more comfortable: augmented reality.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg: the media was unimpressed by Zuckerberg’s promise to do better regarding live-streaming of attacks. Photograph: AP Photo/Noah Berger
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg: the media was unimpressed by Zuckerberg’s promise to do better regarding live-streaming of attacks. Photograph: AP Photo/Noah Berger

The media was unimpressed by Zuckerberg’s promise to do better: CNN called it a “cursory mention” of the tragedy, while Fortune described it as “another example of live video’s dark side”.

It is tempting to cast all of the blame for this at Facebook’s door. By offering Stephens – who died by suicide after a three-day manhunt – an audience, the social media site arguably contributed to the conditions for the assault. And now, instead of taking steps to improve moderation, it is clinging to its increasingly utopian-sounding narrative about connecting people.

Humanity’s instinct

But Facebook did not create humanity’s instinct for depravity: it merely gave it a platform. At the time of writing, Google’s YouTube was continuing to give it a platform – multiple copies of the video could be viewed there, prefaced by warnings of “potentially inappropriate” content. By mid-week, those videos had amassed over 1.03 million views.

Steve Stephens posted a video of himself killing Robert Godwin Snr, and live-streamed himself talking about it. Photograph: The New York Times
Steve Stephens posted a video of himself killing Robert Godwin Snr, and live-streamed himself talking about it. Photograph: The New York Times

Clearly, this isn’t just a Facebook problem. It’s not just a Google problem, or an Internet problem. It is a humanity problem. 

What those rising video view counts reflect is the same base instinct that led to people in Tudor times gathering in public squares to watch executions – only now they can watch from the comfort of their phone. Where people in the medieval era would have jeered and thrown things, today they click and share and retweet.

We should hardly be surprised that streaming tools have ended up being used to turn violence into a spectator sport, the grisliest kind of performance art. As a species, we’re a depraved bunch, with a deeply rooted fascination with gore and violence.

Package those instincts up with a generation’s hunger for self-expression, and a set of tools that promises instant celebrity to anyone with a mobile phone and a willingness to do or say something extreme, and the results will be ugly.

Facebook Live is just a year old, and already it has been host to live-streamed beatings, gang rapes in Chicago and Sweden, and multiple suicides.

Performance

What is perhaps most shocking about all of these incidents is how detached from reality they all seem, even to those actually taking part – as though it is in fact a performance. In one incident in January, four young people in Chicago broadcast a 30-minute assault on a disabled 18 year old. The 24-year-old woman filming the assault blithely checks her hair. At one point, she berates her followers, “You all ain’t even commenting on my shit. Ain’t nobody watching my shit.”

Last month, teenage boys in Chicago live-streamed the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl, as more than 40 people watched. Not one called 911.

In another incident that predated Facebook Live, an Ohio woman was jailed for nine months for live-streaming the rape of her unconscious friend on Periscope. The prosecutor said she began recording to force the rapist to stop, but “she got taken up with all the likes that her live-stream was getting, and therefore . . . did nothing to aid the victim”.

“Technology has moved us into an area that is sometimes beyond belief,” prosecutor Ron O’Brien said.

Allure of an audience

But it is not the tools themselves that egg people on to violence: it is the allure of an audience. In that sense, every click and every share is an act of depravity.

We can kid ourselves that we’re looking merely to participate in the sense of outrage; in reality, we’re feeding the act itself.

Pennsylvania State Police investigate the scene where Steve Stephens, the suspect in the killing of a Cleveland retiree posted on Facebook, took his own life. Photograph: Greg Wohlford
Pennsylvania State Police investigate the scene where Steve Stephens, the suspect in the killing of a Cleveland retiree posted on Facebook, took his own life. Photograph: Greg Wohlford

Ultimately, viewing a live video of a crime and choosing not to report it may become a crime itself, in line with sending or receiving images of child pornography. Until then, we can only hope that basic humanity takes hold. Based on recent experience, that seems a futile hope.

Last week, Ryan A Godwin – grandson of Robert – tweeted in apparent disgust: “Please please please stop retweeting that video and report anyone who has posted it! That is my grandfather show some respect #Cleveland.”

A day later, he seemed to have given up hope that people would stop looking. “If you guys are going to exploit my grandfather’s legacy for some retweets at least honor him by getting his name right GOD-WIN not Goodwin.”

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.