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
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”