Few seem to be worried about the way social media gives us unbridled access to an ever-burgeoning audience. But after 37-year-old Steve Stephens offered a step-by-step account of his murder of 74-year-old Robert Godwin Jr. on Facebook, including a live confessional after the fact, it’s time we consider the consequences of this platform more carefully.
Stephens uploaded his first video at 11:09 p.m. on Sunday evening, declaring his intent to murder. Two minutes later, he uploaded a video that showed him gunning down his victim, Godwin. Finally, 11 minutes following, Stephens posted a Facebook Live video confessing to the crime. “In a timeline of the events,” reports NPR, “Facebook says the video of the shooting was visible to the public for more than two hours and was taken down 23 minutes after it was first reported.” Two days later, a manhunt led Stephens to commit suicide before police could apprehend him.
Sadly, even now, the video is still viewable, as it was uploaded to other sites before Facebook deleted it. Cleveland’s Fox 8 news channel has received calls from many, complaining that these graphic videos are still online. To some degree, this is unavoidable: a chronic result of the mammoth, eternal memory of the Internet. Nothing is truly private, and it’s hard (if not impossible) to truly erase anything.
We’ve Seen Other Graphic Facebook Live Videos
But this murder comes after a horrific torture episode on Facebook Live in January, during which four teenagers beat up, taunted, and scalped a disabled man. After that event, Facebook pulled the video and posted the following: “We do not allow people to celebrate or glorify crimes on Facebook and have removed the original video for this reason. In many instances, though, when people share this type of content, they are doing so to condemn violence or raise awareness about it. In that case, the video would be allowed.”
Of course, this comment was a reference to the Facebook Live video of Philando Castile’s death last year, which his girlfriend recorded. It quickly went viral, stirring up outrage and demands for police reform. “Imagine if Diamond Reynolds had called the local news station after a police officer shot Philando Castile instead of hitting record on her smartphone,” Emmanuella Grinberg writes for CNN. “Would the station have been able to capture the intimate and shocking point of view that put the July 6 shooting in the national spotlight?”
Already, Grinberg notes, Facebook Live has prompted arrests over shootings, beatings, and sexual harassment. The company has said that “just as [live video] gives us a window into the best moments in people’s lives, it can also let us bear witness to the worst. Live video can be a powerful tool in a crisis — to document events or ask for help.”
Facebook Live May Offer Some Good, But At What Cost?
But at what cost? CNN notes that “If a live stream starts blowing up, staffers monitor it for possible violations and interrupt it if need be.” But importantly, this does not remove users’ incentive to post violent content.
Despite these recent incidents, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has shown little real concern for the problem. At Facebook’s F8 tech conference this week, Zuckerberg announced the company’s new projects, including an augmented reality and virtual reality platform.
But even while he acknowledged that instantaneous connectivity is not an unmitigated good, Zuckerberg offered no concrete solutions or answers to recent ills. He only said the following: “And we have a lot of work. And we will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening.”
Some have suggested that we ought to police social media platforms more diligently: treating them like broadcast television, ensuring that live feeds are carefully monitored and censored when necessary. “Godwin’s Law,” a measure advocated in the aftermath of Stephens’ murder, would institute more censorious practices in the development of social media.
The Wider the Audience, the More Appealing the Platform
But we must also admit that our very participation in social media ventures like Facebook create incentive for messed-up people to post their crimes. The very public and easily “viral” nature of social media appeals to the attention-craving loner, the sociopath. It is frightening to think what Facebook Live might suggest in the minds of shooters in the future. How do we combat such a trend?
The fact is, the only way to combat such a thing is to limit Facebook’s scope and power—limiting what it’s capable of, in terms of instantaneous audience outreach and viral capability. That is exactly why Zuckerberg cannot (and likely will not) offer any more concrete solutions to this issue.
Thus, apart from the (seemingly unlikely) possibility that Facebook might ever remove its live video capabilities, the only possible solution rests with us: Facebook users. Such sad and gruesome incidents should remind us all that, despite our craving for attention and connectivity, there should be a limit to our social media usage. The more of us who live online, the more demand we create for sensationalism, outrage, and even horror. We are the audience the Steve Stephens of the world are looking for.