Facebook Live has a violence problem, one far more troubling than national headlines make clear. At least 45 instances of violence — shootings, rapes, murders, child abuse, torture, suicides, and attempted suicides — have been broadcast via Live since its debut in December 2015, a new BuzzFeed News analysis found. That’s an average rate of about two instances per month.
When it launched, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg touted Live as “a great medium for sharing raw and visceral content.” But from its inception and over thee many months that followed that became darkly true — to terrible effect. Videos of shootings, murders, suicides, and rapes began to show up on Facebook with alarming regularity.
A few weeks after the service debuted, a woman named Donesha Gantt used it to go live in Florida after three men shot her five times outside a Florida Burger King. A few months later, a man went live inside a Bangkok apartment, spending 19 minutes preparing to hang himself from a ceiling fan, and another dozen dead and suspended from the fixture before the broadcast ended. In April 2017, three shootings were broadcast via Facebook Live in the span of two days. Earlier this year, two men in Slovenia viciously beat another man for 20 minutes on Facebook Live. Their victim later died from his injuries.
In its short existence, Facebook Live has aired video of three murders and two gang rapes broadcast by their perpetrators.
Facebook declined to tell BuzzFeed News the number of violent acts that have been broadcast to Live. The company also declined comment on the issue of violence aired on the service, instead pointing to a statement Mark Zuckerberg made in May announcing Facebook’s intention to hire 3,000 additional community operations people to help it better respond to violent content.
Some criminologists worry that broadcasts of violent crimes to Facebook Live might lead perpetrators of violent crime to view the platform as a means of gaining infamy, bypassing the traditional filter of the media. “The most likely impact is that it’s going to be a model of how to distribute and immortalize your act,” Ray Surette, a criminal justice professor at the University of Central Florida, told BuzzFeed News.
Jacqueline Helfgott, chair of the Criminal Justice Department at Seattle University, agreed. “It’s making it easier for people to gain notoriety instantly without gatekeepers,” she told BuzzFeed News. “I definitely think there’s a mimetic effect.”
In addition, the longer these videos stay online, the more of a problem they become, said Surette, as criminals may see them as an effective way to publicize their misdeeds. “It does make a difference how long it’s up there,” he explained. “The fewer people that are exposed to it, the fewer people are going to see it as a model.”
Facebook — prior to announcing plans to hire an additional 3,000 people to identify problems — has at times been shockingly slow to remove violent videos. In late April, for example, a Facebook Live video of a father in Thailand murdering his 11-month-old daughter was available on Facebook for nearly 24 hours.
“A great medium for sharing raw and visceral content.”
For every murder aired on Facebook that receives national or international attention — such as the one in Thailand or a murder in Chicago in which the perpetrator uploaded a video of himself killing a man at random — there are several others that don’t make headlines outside local coverage areas. The shooting of Donesha Gantt, for instance, did not make national news. Yet these videos don’t need to be picked up by CNN to have an impact. Millions watch inside Facebook itself.
Even with 7,500 community operations staffers charged with reviewing content, it’s unlikely Facebook will be able to completely eliminate video of violent acts from being broadcast to its platform. Zuckerberg himself appears to understand violence is a fact of life on Facebook now. In his post announcing the new hires, the Facebook CEO promised quicker takedowns and collaboration with law enforcement — but not complete prevention.
As long as Facebook maintains a truly live product, it probably can’t prevent violence from airing in its feeds. Indeed, the violent videos already broadcast to Facebook Live make clear the exceedingly difficult challenge the company faces in managing them. Many start out calmly enough only to abruptly erupt into gunfire or violence.
In Chicago this February, a pregnant woman was livestreaming herself singing along with a car radio when a hail of bullets suddenly poured into her car. A few seconds of gunfire left a man and a 2-year-old toddler dead inside the car; the woman survived. “They killed him,” she said on the live broadcast. “I have a bullet in my stomach.”
One especially complex area for Facebook is suicide. The social network believes it can help prevent suicide by using user reports and artificial intelligence to identify people who express thoughts of self-harm on its platform and connect them with support and crisis resources. But in service of this goal, Facebook risks airing live suicides while it works to get help to people in need.
The additional 3,000 community operations workers may speed up intervention efforts in situations where even a few minutes can make a difference. In early May, Facebook alerted local authorities to a Georgia teenager attempting suicide on Facebook Live. It turned out that her friends, who had also seen the broadcast, had already notified police. While authorities found the girl before Facebook itself acted, she was prevented from harming herself only because Facebook enabled her friends to learn what was happening and intervene. The company hopes that a fast call from Facebook could be a lifesaver in similar situations. “I appreciate that [Facebook] did give us a call,” Linda Howard of Georgia’s Bibb County Sheriff’s Office told BuzzFeed News.
In a news report covering the aftermath of the first shooting aired on Facebook Live in January 2016, a veteran local CBS reporter Hank Tester was befuddled by the incident’s broadcast to Facebook. “This is an absolutely bizarre story,” he said. “I’ve quite never seen anything like it.” Maybe not. But in fact, it was a sign of much more to come. Other video broadcasts of violence followed and it would be a year before the company stepped up its enforcement efforts to address them. By the time Facebook announced additional measures, Stevie Stevens had become the “Facebook Live killer,” and a group in Chicago had tortured a man live for 30 minutes.
Zuckerberg said his company will hire the additional community operations people over the next year, so presumably the team is not yet at full strength. That said, BuzzFeed News found three incidents of violence broadcast to Live in May, down from nine in April — perhaps the result of additional attention from this growing team.
These are encouraging signs. But with each passing month it becomes more clear that Facebook may never be able to solve the problem of violence on Live, any more than violence itself can be solved. In May, a Tennessee man burned himself alive and broadcast the act via Live. He died a few days later.
Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.
Contact Alex Kantrowitz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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