Ethics

How will we deal with the first murder on Facebook Live?

By Kitty Knowles 6 January 2017
Summary

The odds aren't looking good.

This week a deeply disturbing act of violence was streamed on Facebook Live.

Broadcast from Chicago, the 30-minute video showed a bound and gagged man being assaulted.

The victim’s clothes are cut, he’s burned with cigarette ash, and his head is forced back by an attacker’s foot. He has part of his scalp removed with a knife.

The traumatised victim has since been released from hospital, and yesterday four suspects were being held by police over the attack.

It would be easy to see this a ‘case closed’, but the crime raises worrying questions about our new ‘Live’ world.

Facebook’s big flaw

In the media there have long been rules about what should and should not be printed – or aired.

Many are related to whether or not the content at hand is in the public interest.

You probably do not need to see a graphically violent scene to understand it, just as you don’t need to see victims’ faces, or bodies, to understand that they are victims. Showing such images would be, to different extents; sensationalist, exploitative, and dangerous.

Facebook has a history of failing to understand what should and should not be censored. Recently, for example, it censored a Pulitzer prize-winning historical photograph that shows children fleeing from a napalm attack during the Vietnam war.

Facebook repeatedly removed the image, and penalised those posting it, citing its ban on nudity in its reasoning.

What the social media goliath failed to take into account, was that the photos meaning was so much more than the naked child at its centre. It should not be reduced to something explicit. It’s a politically, emotionally, charged documentary photograph that should not be censored.

Even if we were to take Facebook’s nudity ban at face value (so-to-speak) – its ban on the female nipple is backwards and outdated.

Worse to come

Taken in the context of violence, and a new streaming feature that allows anyone anywhere to stream anything, there is surely worse to come.

How can, or will, Facebook possibly moderate all the live videos that could be potentially be recorded by its 1.8bn users around the world.

As knife crime and gang violence continues to destroy communities, the assault in Chicago this week is unlikely to be the first of its kind.

And as we saw, when journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward were shot dead in a live broadcast on TV, a murder can even be unintentionally broadcast to millions.

Even if Facebook could stop this kind of distressing material from airing, would it be right?

Walking the line

Social media has been at the front line of many a political protest, and has helped to shine a light on the true extent of police brutality – especially in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US.

To block these stories from being told because they involve graphic images or violence would surely be on the wrong side of censorship.

But to allow all broadcast to go uncensored, we similarly risk glorifying violent offenders.

Today almost everyone has a smartphone, we are always switched on, and increasingly that means recording.

Despite the best efforts of many, we still live in a very violent world.

It is only a matter of time until the first murder is captured on Facebook Live.

How will Mark Zuckerberg deal with this horror when, not if, it happens?