A man decides to kill innocents. This man rallies his firearms, his ideologies, his hate. He picks his targets, and because it’s the Twentyfirst, he picks his GoPro and his streaming platform, Facebook Live, to commit his atrocity.
How do we build livestreaming sites to protect against this kind of tragedy? This is what I have been ruminating on for the last few days. Because I want a world where people can safely share with their families and friends, and even have a larger platform for creative expression, and not have to worry about sharing this platform with mass murderers.
From the Bloomberg article on this tragedy:
Mary Anne Franks, a professor of law at the University of Miami, said there is “simply no responsible way to moderate a true live streaming service.” Facebook has always known the service has the potential to “encourage and amplify the worst of humanity, and it must confront the fact that it has blood on its hands,” she said.
This professor is wrong about there being no way to moderate a livestreaming service. There is a way to do this, but it will take some changes to the way we think about the sharing of streams. And also, one rule change would help.
For more on the kind of threat that these events represent, and how white supremacists and others are exploiting social media flaws, I suggest you read this article in The Atlantic. It’s grim stuff, the methodical way extremists pre-seed content (sometimes just ironic memes) for journalists to find after their horrific livestreams. But the livestream causes the biggest impact, and all the strategies to control these events without changing livestreaming publicly are doomed to fail.
First, what we should understand is that we live in a world where User Interfaces (UI) and User Experience (UX) are more influential than laws. The choices we give our users as application developers create the rules of the digital world.
I say this having lived and worked through the era of anonymous BBSes, the early web, the rise of social media and video, and also from a position of some expertise in the video streaming space. I’ve also been involved in the building of probably around 100 web and application projects. So I know a bad user feature when I see it.
There is a flaw in Facebook Live to be addressed. In the settings for live streaming, you see this:
When you create a livestream of Facebook, the first thing you see is the ability to immediately create a public cast. This option is not defaulted but is the top choice. You can also share with your friends, or even yourself alone.
There is only one change I believe they should make on this page, and it’s the public option. This option should be removed until a transparent dynamic queuing system for public video is implemented.
Heck, even Reddit has a /new queue for each subreddit.
And we need to tell users that their public broadcasts are moderated and queued for approval. If the delay is an hour or a day, so be it. I have no doubt Facebook has some sort of queue in place now. It is show this queue to users, who can help mitigate use of the platform to livestream tragedy.
Then, instead of a few thousand reviewers for public broadcast, you could have millions who will do the work for free.
Now, to be clear, I am not absolutely sure how this shooter shared his streams. But ultimately, unless there was a lot of pre-planning, I doubt he had 200 people ready to watch and share the live stream as the attack occurred as Facebook reported.
The idea that sharing a live stream publicly, immediately, is a good idea is based on creaky assumptions about what video and free speech are.
There is No Private Megaphone
Sound is moving air and sending signals into our brains. Video is doing the same thing with light and transmission of video signals.
Both sound and video literally touch us. Pressure on our senses that is woven into the frames of consciousness produced by our brains.
We would never allow someone to anonymously broadcast hateful images on the sides of our houses. We would never let random people say hateful things to our Children, or to us.
Even if you believe in rights, you must accept that the right to free speech is different than the “right” to taking a massive megaphone from a company offering it to broadcast family friendly events and use it to force horror into the eyes of millions. One may find such trolling funny, but I would suggest that finding such a thing funny says nothing about the world and everything about the way it has broken people, and made them lose their humanity. And while that breakage is a tragedy, it does not justify other ones.
A megaphone is not private, and impacts others. Its use must be controlled where it impacts others, especially since the megaphone in this case is a private platform for sharing of hopefully wholesome content. There is no right to walk into a TV station and demand screen time. There is no right to have immediate public livestreaming on a private platform. If you want to stream such terrible things, it is trivial to publish video in any number of ways. Let this trash live in the underbelly of the Net where it belongs.
Sometimes, products are better when features are removed. There is no ad revenue worth letting people associate Facebook with mass murder.
The Rule Change
I would additionally suggest that Facebook make those sharing violent criminal streams responsible. Ban these people from the platform. Drive out not only the creators, but the sharers of violent content. If you have confirmed identity via your platform, this is meaningful and may prevent spreading video through deterrence or removing bad actors in the future. People will lose their voice on the platform for doing wrong, and that is how we protect civilization and good apps from those who threaten it.
Keeping billions of good users is far, far more important for profits than keeping a few thousand trolls with ad blockers on.
Part of The Plan
The best part of the two changes I am proposing is that they are congruent with the plan Facebook (nee Zuckerberg) has already laid out.
This privacy-focused platform will be built around several principles:Private interactions. People should have simple, intimate places where they have clear control over who can communicate with them and confidence that no one else can access what they share.
These moves would be a strong signal from Facebook to show they are serious about making it about safety, protecting people’s data and their consciousnesses. It will take will and effort to change course in this way. It can and should be done.
Facebook isn’t to blame for this livestreaming tragedy. Humans have been horrible for a long time. But by removing the public streaming option until it has been fixed, and booting those who share this horror immediately, they will take important steps toward the vision Zuckerberg is espousing.