Facebook on Thursday refused to respond to mounting questions over its apparent failure to take down a live broadcast of the brutal attack of a young man with disabilities in Chicago.
Wednesday’s Facebook Live video showing a man bound, gagged and cut with a knife amid shouts of “fuck Donald Trump” undermines the company’s efforts to market the tool.
For the last few months, Facebook has been running a multimedia advertising campaign encouraging users to try its video live-streaming product.
On billboards, television and online the company uses cutesy animations urging users to share warm and fuzzy moments like “hanging out with friends” or “when you see someone walking an animal that’s not a dog”.
At no point does the company suggest using the tool to document torture, police brutality or spree killing – but that is precisely what the tool has, in part, gained a reputation for over the last nine months.
This was brought to the fore most viscerally with this week’s attack in Chicago. The 30-minute assault was watched by 16,000 people, leaving many asking why Facebook didn’t take the content down as it did in the case of the police stand-off with Korryn Gaines. Facebook did eventually take down the recorded video, but not before it had been copied and widely shared on YouTube.
Facebook refused to comment on how many people – if any – reported the content, although there appear to have been many comments under the live stream made by horrified viewers who may have also used the report tool. Nor would Facebook tell the Guardian when it first became aware of the video and how long it took to decide to take the footage down from the site.
Instead, a spokeswoman for the company in a statement: “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.”
Facebook also pointed to a blog post about community standards for Live Video, where it explains that it has a team on-call 24-hours a day, seven days a week “dedicated to responding to reports” from users “immediately”.
Reviewers can interrupt a live video stream if it violates the community standards and it only takes one report for an item of content to be reviewed. The company also monitors videos if they reach a certain level of popularity, even if they haven’t been reported.
All of which raises difficult questions for Facebook about how the shocking video was broadcast, seemingly uninterrupted, for 30 minutes.
“I find it really hard to believe that not enough people reported it,” said Reem Suleiman from SumOfUs, a civil rights group that has been campaigning for Facebook to be more transparent about its content take-down process.
“I don’t want to speculate here, but we’ve had issues ourselves trying to get certain things taken down in the past,” she added.
As NPR highlighted in November, the role of moderation is carried out by a team of subcontractors operating under pressure, making decisions about pieces of flagged content once every 10 seconds. It’s no surprise that mistakes, such as the inappropriate censorship of an iconic Vietnam War picture or a breast cancer awareness video, are made. Given the complexity and duration of live video streams, it’s difficult to see how they can be effectively assessed under these conditions.
Katy Culver, the director of Center for Journalism Ethics, suggested that perhaps nobody reported the video to Facebook. “Otherwise, I struggle to believe that the platform would not have taken it down,” she said.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi told the Guardian on Thursday that police learned of the Facebook video around the same time that the agency encountered the victim and quickly determined that he was the subject of the footage.
While patrol officers were assisting the victim, “other units had gotten word of the Facebook video”, he said. “It only took a matter of hours to put this whole case together.”
Guglielmi said police had no difficulties acquiring the video and did not make any formal requests to the social media company for help in securing evidence.
Four suspects have been charged with hate crimes, kidnapping, battery and burglary. Police identified the suspects as Jordan Hill, Tesfaye Cooper, Brittany Covington and Tanishia Covington. The suspects are all 18 years old, except Tanishia Covington, who is 24, according to the Associated Press.
The incident once again raises questions about Facebook’s responsibility as a media company. Just as critics are calling for the company to stop the spread of misinformation on its platform, so too are they demanding Facebook make editorial judgements about Live Video.
“It’s a really good example of why Facebook cannot rely solely on its users to report content. It’s clearly not effective, it’s not good enough,” said Suleiman.
She acknowledged that the live-streaming tool was valuable for exposing human rights abuses. “But there’s a huge difference between using Facebook to expose violence and corruption and using it to violate, exploit and abuse people,” she said.
“If Facebook wants people to use its platform to report news it needs to be held to the same standard that other news outlets are.”
Others believe Facebook should be building better technical solutions for triaging problematic content.
“Facebook has to moderate horrifying levels of graphic and upsetting content that emerges around the world every day,” said Claire Wardle from First Draft News. “But this example shows how much further the company has to go in terms of improving their discovery technology to ensure a video like this gets pushed to the top of a moderation queue.”
Culver accepts that it’s extremely challenging to monitor the volume of content posted to Facebook, but said that the social network appears to be taking steps in the right direction.
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