The daily CJR.com “The Media Today” newsletter begins with this:
News broke this afternoon that a manhunt is on in Cleveland after Steve Stephens allegedly broadcast the killing via Facebook Live. He also reportedly claimed to have killed several other people, though at this hour that has not been confirmed. The horror of the broadcast comes not only from the death and the disturbing performative inclination of the alleged killer—but the fact that, because it was broadcast, the live stream potentially appeared on friends’ feeds without warning, and without consent.
While this event is shocking, it came as no surprise to many of us watching Facebook closely. While this is probably the first homicide livestreamed by Facebook, the tool has a history of being used to broadcast violent and graphic content. The use of Facebook Live from the eyes of a killer was foreshadowed by the video of the death of Philando Castille by the police, through the emotional Live broadcast of his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds. And in 2015, a journalist in Virginia committed a double homicide, posting a video of the shooting on Twitter and Facebook before killing himself. It was only a matter of time before this type of incident was repeated—but this time, streamed live.
Why was such content allowed on Facebook? It has to do with the nature of how Facebook sifts through potentially violent content. In the fall, I wrote about how moderation works for Twitter and Facebook: It relies on user flagging of posts and images—which means that someone has to see it before the content is removed from social media.
How Facebook responds in the coming days will be telling. As the Tow Center’s Director Emily Bell writes on Twitter, “Facebook Live worst case has happened. FB has to decide if it wants to continue with it knowing risk to reputation/ public safety.”
But the sad thing is that these questions about Facebook Live surfaced months ago. As BuzzFeed reporter Charlie Warzel writes on Twitter, “don’t think that FB has answered very many of these big questions re: Live that I put forth after Castille shooting”—referring to a piece he wrote in July questioning Facebook’s responsibility.