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I'm a business journalist and a fiction author. My novel Mute is available now from Silver Leaf Books.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

How many people need to die on Facebook Live until tech giant pulls the plug?

Sadly, people are murdered and committee suicide every day. Few of these incidents attract the global spotlight. That’s where Facebook Live and other instantaneous social media platforms come in.

Steve Stephens gained his 15 minutes of fame by fatally shooting complete stranger Robert Godwin, 74, in Cleveland live on Facebook. In Thailand, Wuttisan Wongtalay hung his 11-month-old daughter on Facebook Live before killing himself on the same platform.

Would these crimes, and many before them, have occurred without a global platform to broadcast these murders? These videos were viewed hundreds of thousands of times before Facebook pulled them. It appears that Stephens wanted to draw attention to himself as he dealt with personal problems. Shooting someone in anonymity would be another murder among hundreds every day. But a murder on Facebook Live, that put Stephens’ face all over the world.

That’s why live social media has become more frequently used by young people to broadcast suicide. Drawing more attention to their deaths has a greater impact on the people they blame for their suffering.

I anticipated this trend in my novel Famous After Death, where Miami teenagers commit murders in creative ways and post them online. In my story, most of these murders were recorded and posted soon after without the teens identifying themselves, but several of the crimes occur online in real time - similar to Facebook Live.

The question for Facebook, one of the 10 most valuable companies in the world, is what it’s prepared to do about it. After Godwin was murdered, CEO Mark Zuckerberg vowed to improve the monitoring of videos on Facebook Live. Right now the company depends on users reporting questionable content. It’s working on artificial intelligence, but that could be years away.

Until a better system is in place and Facebook Live can’t be effectively policed, Zuckerberg should consider taking it down. The world will survive without Facebook Live, and so will the company. It’s a nice feature, but it’s not a crucial part of the website.

What can’t be replaced is the lives of people like Godwin.

Of course, Facebook makes plenty of money off these videos. There are more than 8 billion daily views of Facebook videos. Mobile video advertising is a multi-billion dollar market. So there are financial incentives for Facebook not to back down.

This isn’t only a Facebook problem. Platforms like YouTube, Periscope and Snapchat have been used to promote violence. In some cases, terrorist groups have posted propaganda videos on social media that went unchecked for months. This issue has caused YouTube to pull paid advertising from certain categories of videos, since advertisers didn’t want to run the risk that their ads would run alongside offensive videos.

Facebook Live has the potential to be a great platform. I wish politicians would broadcast all their meetings live on social media instead of striking backroom deals.

But until Zuckerberg and Co. can police it, one murder is too many.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A new wave of viral violence begins with brutality on live stream

As social media evolves to become more instantaneous than ever, viral violence has once again hijacked the ride.

Why wait five seconds to post a video of your life? Services like Facebook Live and Periscope provide a real-time look at what’s in front of your face. With instant audience metrics and feedback, they make life like a mini TV station. What more can the host do in that moment to grow an audience and go viral?

Four teenagers in Chicago found a way to juice their Facebook Live viewership past 15,000. They kidnapped a mental disabled teenager they went to high school with, tied him up, mercilessly beat him, cut his scalp with a knife, and taunted him with racial insults. The victim was white and the attackers were black, so this might be classified as a hate crime.

The video went on for 30 minutes on one of the suspect’s Facebook Live page, with viewership building as the seconds tick by. Facebook removed the video after the four suspects were arrested.

This story has some strange parallels to my novel Famous After Death. In my story, the teenagers are also abusing victims for the gratification of an online audience. However, they mostly posted the videos after the fact, using public wifi and a device that couldn’t be traced directly to them, and they didn’t put their faces in the video. When there is an attack in my book that is filmed live on the internet, it’s the victim’s camera phone being used for the live broadcast, not the attacker’s phone. They don’t want to be caught!

With these suspects in Chicago, they acted with zero regard for evading capture. Not only did one suspect post this on a Facebook profile using a personal device, they all appeared in the video. You know, just to make sure there’s no doubt. Yet, like the characters in my novel, there was a pack mentality. Get a bunch of people together with bad intentions and a camera, and the watch their aggression multiply.

Were these teenagers so proud that they could beat the poor guy that they wanted to show the world?

Here’s the other thing that gets me. Did any one of the Facebook Live viewers bother calling the police?

Violence can’t go viral unless an audience supports it.