Persistence of Vision

Live streaming services can turn viewers into bystanders

Last year, Mark Zuckerberg introduced Facebook Live via a post on his personal account. “Live is like having a TV camera in your pocket,” he wrote. “Anyone with a phone now has the power to broadcast to anyone in the world. When you interact live, you feel connected in a more personal way. This is a big shift in how we communicate, and it’s going to create new opportunities for people to come together.”

To complement and reinforce this announcement, Facebook released its first ad campaign in the U.S. and UK since its launch 13 years ago. After over a decade of exponential growth, the company was beginning to plateau in active monthly users. Ads showed vignettes captured by Facebook Live users: a three-two-one countdown to adorable footage like a puppy dressed as a teddy bear surrounded by actual teddy bears, or a baby boy bracing for his first haircut. Other, pictorial ads demonstrated the ease and simplicity of going “live” in familiar situations: “How to go live when you see someone walking an animal that is not a dog,” read a bus stop. An ad perched above a luggage carousel read, “How to go live while everyone is waiting for the first suitcase to drop.”

Live streaming collapses the distance between the viewer and the viewed, between the viewer and the event itself. We feel more directly involved, and more intensely helpless

It did not take long for other social media platforms to embrace the live video feature. A live component launched on Instagram (owned by Facebook) in November, with a short companion video showing users aged 25 and under sharing the milestones of an average person who has not lived very long: silly dance moves, new braces, a colorful cast on a first broken arm. In December, Twitter announced Go Live, the fruit of its procurement of Periscope, a live streaming application, almost two years prior: “Exploring a new city? Find yourself in the middle of something amazing? Celebrating your team’s big end of season win? Go live on Twitter and let others experience it with you.”

In marketing materials, there was little to indicate the range of experiences these live streams would soon capture. Nor was there evidence of preparedness for them, an omission that seems inexcusable: Before live streaming was widely available, cruelty made a regular appearance in comments, pictures, and videos on all platforms, and violent images were shared widely across social media. Live streaming collapses the distance between the viewer and the viewed, between the viewer and the event itself. The intimacy of a live video allows us to share a moment. We feel more directly involved, and sometimes intensely helpless. A live stream can further victimize its subjects, and turn its viewers into powerless bystanders.

Three months to the day after Zuckerberg introduced Facebook Live, Diamond Reynolds broadcasted the aftermath of the shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, by a police officer, while her daughter sat in the backseat. Police shootings were becoming a regular occurrence in the news cycle and the video went viral like several others. By the following morning, thousands had seen Reynolds’s partner bleed to death while gasping for his last breath. The video’s temporary disappearance from Facebook was explained away by a representative as a “technical glitch.” It resurfaced with a graphic violence warning: “Are you sure you want to see this?”

The next day, Zuckerberg offered a post in response, a little longer than his post introducing Facebook Live: “My heart goes out to the Castile family and all the other families who have experienced this kind of tragedy. My thoughts are also with all members of the Facebook community who are deeply troubled by these events. The images we’ve seen this week are graphic and heartbreaking, and they shine a light on the fear that millions of members of our community live with every day. While I hope we never have to see another video like Diamond’s, it reminds us why coming together to build a more open and connected world is so important — and how far we still have to go.”

Zuckerberg was strategically vague and generalizing. He invoked the idea of community, without the responsibility or engagement the term would demand. To avoid alienating Facebook users, he purposefully omitted an important detail of the story: Castile and his family were black. They were a part of demographic that suffers daily the tragedy of being murdered by police. Connecting to Facebook means connecting to the experience of black people, who make up a large percentage of Facebook’s community. Zuckerberg did not cite any articles, documentaries, or any other resources that could provide context for what had happened. He made no mention of the GoFundMe set up for the four-year-old daughter left behind, who would need support of every kind to recover from the trauma of watching her father die. He offered no next steps beyond echoes of white liberal rhetoric about hope, openness and coming together, and fell short of grasping the magnitude of Facebook Live’s effect on the lives of users.

Livestreaming heightens the violence it shows. It can be an instrument of violence in itself

At this moment, googling “Facebook Live” reveals “death” and “torture” as the top two options in the suggested search. The act of livestreaming cruelty is not only used to “shine a light” on injustice. In February of 2016, 18-year-old Marina Lonina broadcasted the rape of a 17-year-old friend using Periscope. Unlike in the case of Castile, when live streaming was meant to raise awareness of inhumane precedent, Lonina paraded inhumanity for her audience. She and the victim met the attacker, 29-year-old Raymond Gates, at a shopping mall. The next day they met at a residence where Gates pinned down the victim and raped her while Lonina recorded. Lonina was also charged with live streaming her friend’s naked body the day before. Later, she would tell authorities she recorded the attack in the hopes of providing evidence of the crime, not to embarrass or titillate anyone.

The prosecutor, Ron O’Brien, said for roughly 10 seconds of the 10-minute live stream, Lonina held the victim’s leg while she cried and struggled. Lonina did not call 911. “For the most part she is just streaming it on the Periscope app and giggling and laughing.” It was a friend in another state who saw the broadcast and called the police.

In January, the Wall Street Journal reported that “There have been at least 40 such broadcasts of sensitive, violent or criminal footage on live video over the last 12 months.” In Chicago, four people used Facebook Live to broadcast themselves torturing a disabled man. An audience of 16,000 witnessed the man bound, gagged, beaten, scalped, and forced to drink toilet water for 30 minutes before Facebook removed the video. The name of the victim was never mentioned in subsequent articles. However, his terrified face and the brutality he suffered are preserved in the permanence of the internet. After its removal on Facebook, the video resurfaced on YouTube.

Livestreaming heightens the violence it shows. It can be an instrument of violence in itself. Some with hateful intentions are emboldened by the knowledge of an audience; for those being filmed, the exposure can add humiliation and shame to mounting fear. Murders on livestream become contemporary lynching. Those of us who watch from our iPhones and computers know that what we are witnessing is not over. We are helpless and complicit.

Since its debut, Facebook Live broadcasts at any minute have quadrupled, with broadcasts from all seven continents, as well as from outer space. The Facebook Live Map features a two-dimensional, grey map of Earth, speckled with blue dots that pulse with varying intensities. Each dot represents a live broadcast happening now, and its size correlates to the size of its audience. Hover the cursor over any dot to reveal lines stretching to its viewers in other parts of the world. First, its immensity inspires awe, then dread.

Facebook is quick to highlight its product’s reach, but has made insufficient efforts toward protecting its users from exposure to violence, and responding to the violence broadcast or enabled by its platform. This speaks to its values as a company: attracting more money through more monthly users. Policies in place for overseeing content are ambiguous, and haven’t changed much since the platform’s beginning. This passivity contributes to the mental scars that millions of users sustain.

Facebook’s philosophies and policies are summarized on its Community Standards page. “Facebook has long been a place where people share their experiences and raise awareness about important issues,” reads a paragraph under a section titled Encouraging Respectful Behavior. “Sometimes, those experiences and issues involve violence and graphic images of public interest or concern, such as human rights abuses or acts of terrorism. In many instances, when people share this type of content, they are condemning it or raising awareness about it. We remove graphic images when they are shared for sadistic pleasure or to celebrate or glorify violence.” Despite the company’s intentions, the affect of a broadcast is decided by its audience. While posts may bring awareness to some about a social justice issue, some viewers will be inspirited by the violent footage, sometimes regardless of the creator’s intent.

If Facebook is a community, its “leaders” have additional obligations. Community standards center on loose theory, a bare minimum, more than practice

Enforcement of Facebook’s policies relies on its consumers — it’s up to users to flag posts as inappropriate or offensive. “There are billions of posts, comments and messages across our services each day, and since it’s impossible to review all of them, we review content once it is reported to us,” Zuckerberg wrote recently, in a 5000-plus word letter to Facebook’s 1.8 billion users. “There have been terribly tragic events — like suicides, some live streamed — that perhaps could have been prevented if someone had realized what was happening and reported them sooner. There are cases of bullying and harassment every day, that our team must be alerted to before we can help out. These stories show we must find a way to do more.”

Facebook says it monitors live feeds that have attracted a significant audience, and offers users the option of reporting streams in which something troubling is taking place. In early March, the company introduced new suicide prevention resources. Instead of accepting responsibility for the platform’s role in the onslaught of violence broadcast through Facebook Live, however, Zuckerberg has largely proposed a neighborhood watch tactic to combat cruelty online. A significant number of Facebook users are not equipped with extensive knowledge of world affairs and mental illness. They cannot be expected to make decisions about unpredictable violent content on the website where they share pictures of family reunions and vacation getaways. Once a traumatic event is broadcast live, even effective intervention doesn’t necessarily address the trauma of witnessing it as it happens.

In his letter, Zuckerberg nearly blames the Facebook community for the platform’s recent, and frequent failings, as if Facebook were a public space, and not a corporate property that reaps loads of monetary benefit from live broadcasts. If Facebook is a community, its “leaders” have additional obligations. Community standards center on loose theory, a bare minimum, more than practice: Rather than put any genuine energy into supervising or addressing content, users are individually responsible for their own mental health and safety, for processing and reacting to graphic videos that enter their lives during morning coffee. It adds up to cleverly disguised inaction, and could lead to a decline in active users. It is imperative that Facebook protect its users. Violent content is hard to preempt on any platform, but acknowledging the magnitude of the live feature, and the realities of the world in which it’s being used might be a start.

“Everything feels too intimate, too aggressive; the interfaces that were intended to cheerfully connect us to the world have instead spawned fear and alienation,” wrote Jia Tolentino in an essay for the New Yorker on 2016’s “Worst Year Ever” meme. “No, 2016 is not the worst year ever, but it’s the year I started feeling like the internet would only ever induce the sense of powerlessness that comes when the sphere of what a person can influence remains static, while the sphere of what can influence us seems to expand without limit, allowing no respite at all.”

At this stage livestreaming has made more contributions to collective anxiety and terror than to improving human experience as a whole. “When you interact live, you feel connected in a more personal way,” explained Zuckerberg in his initial post; what Facebook and other platforms have failed to recognize is that connectedness is a complicated good. At the very minimum, it requires awareness and care.

Franceska Rouzard is an essayist based in Philadelphia.