Is Facebook’s problem with violent videos getting worse?

Videos of violent crimes are an uncomfortable by-product of an increasingly connected online universe, but social media giant Facebook have been criticised for their role in the spread of violent content online. Fionnula Hainey looks into the problem.

Facebook are continually bringing new features to their growing social network that contribute to our ever more interactive world. But the vast amount of shareable content that we have access to comes with some degree of worry. What happens when distressing violent videos are fed into our everyday consumption of the world around us? It is harrowing to think that graphic videos depicting the most heinous of crimes may be viewed by children, or used to spread messages of hate. So how does Facebook go about protecting us from such content whilst ensuring it does not infringe upon its mission to make the world more open and connected?

Last month the social networking site came under fire for allowing a video of Cleveland man Steve Stephens shooting an elderly man dead in the street to appear on the social network site for two hours before being removed. Just last week, it was reported that a Thai man had used Facebook to broadcast a live video of him murdering his baby daughter before killing himself. The two clips of the incident stayed online for almost 24 hours before being taken down, by then they had been viewed almost 400,000 times.

But this hardly a new trend. These are just two recent examples from a number of high-profile tragedies shared on social media. In the past decade the world has been shaken by footage such as the ISIS beheadings and the aftermath of Lee Rigby’s death. The debate over whether images of these crimes should be publicised for awareness or disregarded in an act of defiance towards the perpetrators’ hunt for recognition has been a hot topic. But I would imagine the vast majority of regular social media users would at least recognise still images taken from such videos, if not have watched clips themselves.

It is easy to see why such videos gain popularity on the internet in a world where gory horror films and morbid curiosity are the norm. But far from a fictional set up of fake blood and tortured souls, the videos depicting real-life, real-time crime are a dangerous interest. Aside from the impact on the victims and their families’ grief, there is the worry people will harden to such crimes and illegality will become something to marvel at. No one wants to live in a society where such atrocities become become regular viewing. Social media platforms have a responsibility to estrange us from this type of material that they are allowing to be distributed.

Violence and Graphic Content

Facebook has long been a place where people share their experiences and raise awareness about important issues. 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.

When people share anything on Facebook, we expect that they will share it responsibly, including carefully choosing who will see that content. We also ask that people warn their audience about what they are about to see if it includes graphic violence.

Facebook Community Standards

In response to the shooting in Cleveland Vice President of Global Operations at the company Justin Osofsky said: “It was a horrific crime — one that has no place on Facebook, and goes against our policies and everything we stand for.”

“As a result of this terrible series of events, we are reviewing our reporting flows to be sure people can report videos and other material that violates our standards as easily and quickly as possible.”

CEO Mark Zuckerburg at Facebook’s F8 developer conference said: “We have a lot more to do here and we will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening.”

Writing for the Guardian, Nancy Jo Sales describes Facebook as “a kind of online Roman Colosseum, a public stage for murder, torture and rape”. She says the platform has a disturbing ethical problem of allowing anyone to post such atrocities on the site despite their official policy on the matter.  It seems as though the company’s preoccupation with pushing engagement with real-time content has so far lacked a real consideration of regulation. Despite the company’s vision of an online community sharing fun and poignant snapshots of people’s lives and bringing us together, there was always going to be a dark side.

The tragedy in Thailand is a shocking example of how Facebook’s live feature may be used. A world in which a mother can discover the murder of her daughter through a live broadcast is far from the socially and virtually connected one that Facebook wants to promote.

Speaking to Agence France-Presse the daughter’s mother said: “I don’t blame Facebook. They are not part of the problem; we can choose to broadcast happiness or sadness.”

It is important to remember that Facebook is not the killer in these situations, nor an aid to murder. But, Zuckerburg and his team certainly have some tough decisions to make regarding their open social world and the huge implications that a small minority of people misusing the service can have on the platform.

Facebook’s problem with violent videos is an international issue and one that the UK is also struggling with despite not yet seeing an atrocity on the scale of those in Cleveland and Thailand. Videos of physical violence from and towards school children are spread around social media platforms at an alarming rate. Whilst some of the sharers do so as an act of awareness and intent to catch those involved, alarmingly it is often those involved in the bullying that film and spread the vicious content.

An attack on a schoolgirl in Doncaster was filmed by one of the numerous onlookers, The Star reported earlier this week. The fight was broken up when an adult intervened but the video still ended up on Facebook and has been viewed thousands of times.

CEO of children’s charity BulliesOut Linda James said these such videos should be removed from social media immediately.

“The humiliation and pain of the person being bullied or hurt is being viewed by thousands of people which is horrendous. The trauma that person will suffer from the incident is bad enough but knowing it has been shared will add to the emotional pain and they will need as much support as is possible,” she said.

Videos that are shared to glorify or celebrate violence go against Facebook’s policy – but if a video that has graphic content is shared to condemn the behaviour it may be allowed to stay on the site. A video may have thousands of views and shares to put forward a message of disapproval but if the source of the video is the perpetrators there should be careful consideration over what effect the spread of such content may have.

“As more and more children and young people are afforded the use of technology; we will see a rise is things like this. Unfortunately for some, they view this as entertainment and others share it without thinking of the consequences. We need to educate young people on the consequences of actions like this,” James said.

This craze, that appears to be reaching regions all over the UK, can hardly be compared to the horrific murders that have been shared from overseas, but it demonstrates that Facebook’s problem with violent video is perhaps closer to home than some may think. With the worrying increase in much more horrific crimes being shared freely until Facebook gets around to assessing and removing the content,we have to ask what else the big social media players can do to protect people from becoming spectators from behind a screen.