The New York Times has a front page story about social media perils with a blunt headline, “Video of killing casts Facebook in a harsh light”. (Maybe, in comparison to the tort manual, it’s a “false light”). The story, by Mike Isaac and Christopher Mele, has a more expansive title online, “A murder on Facebook provokes outrage and questions over responsibility.”
This refers to a recent brazen random shooting of a senior citizen in Cleveland Easter Sunday (on Facebook Live), but there have been a few other such incidents, including the gunning of two reporters on a Virginia television station during a broadcast in 2015, after which the perpetrator committed suicide. Facebook Live has also been used to record shooting by police, however (as in Minnesota).
The Wall Street Journal has a similar story today by Deep Seetharaman (“Murder forces scrutiny at Facebook”) and Variety includes a statement by Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s VP of global operations. Really, is it reasonable the AI or some other tool can detect violent activity being filmed prospectively?
At the outset, it’s pretty easy to ask why the assailants in these cases had weapons. Obviously, they should not have passed background checks – except that some may have had no previous records.
As the articles point out, sometimes the possibility of public spectacle plays into the hands of “religious enemies”, that is lone wolf actors motivated by radical Islam or other ideologies. But at a certain psychological level, religion is a secondary contributing factor. Persons who commit such acts publicly (or covertly) have found that this world if modernism, abstraction and personal responsibility makes no sense to them. So ungated social media may, in rare cases, provoke a “15 minutes of fame” motive along with a “nothing to lose” attitude (and maybe a belief in martyrdom). This syndrome seems very personal and usually goes beyond the portrayal of an authoritarian religious or political message.
It is easy, of course, to invoke a Cato-like statistical argument (which often applies to immigration). In a nation of over 300 million people (or a world of billions), instant communication will rarely, but perhaps predictably with some very low probability, provoke such incidents. You can make the same arguments about the mobility offered by driving cars.
Ungated user content offers new forms of journalism, personal expression and self-promotion, and new checks on political powers, but it comes with some risks, like fake news and crazy people seeking attention.
For me, the history is augmented by the observation that most of my own “self-promotion” came through search engines on flat sites, in the late 90s and early 00’s, before modern social media offered friending and news aggregation. As with an incident when I was substitute teaching in late 2005, the possibility of search engine discovery carried its own risks, leading to the development of the notion of “online reputation.”
Still, the development of user-generated content, that did not have to pay its own freight the way old fashioned print publications did in the pre-Internet days when the bottom line controlled what could be published, is remarkable in the moral dilemmas it can create.
It’s ironic. How social media allows us to experience being “alone together”, but makes up for it by encouraging individuals to ask for help online by crowdfunding the meeting of their own needs – something I am usually hesitant to jump into.
This is a good place to mention a new intrusion onto Section 230, a bill by Anne Wagner (R-MO), “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017”, partly in response to the Backpage controversy, congressional link here. No doubt discussion of this bill will cause more discussion of the expectations for proactive screening by social media.
There’s an additional note: the perpetrator of the Cleveland incident has ended his own life after police attempted to apprehend him (Cleveland Plain Dealer story).
(Posted: Tuesday, April 18, 2017 at 1 PM EDT)
Update: Thursday, April 27, 2017 at 10:45 AM EDT
There has been a major crime deliberately filmed on Facebook Live in Thailand, story here.
Facebook has announced plans to hire 3000 more people to screen complaints for inappropriate content. These jobs probably often require bilingual skills.