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Is Facebook a Safe Place for Social Activism?

Livestreaming police brutality is getting more complicated

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles Police officers in 1991, it took nearly two days for the rest of the world to see it. A stranger with a camcorder recorded the Sunday-morning assault from his terrace, then took the footage to local news station KTLA on Monday morning. The channel broadcast the attack that night, and it was picked up by CNN the following day, exploding into a national story.

That timeline is much longer than it took for the recorded killings of two black men at the hands of police — Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Tuesday, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, on Wednesday — to reach the public, ricochet across social media, take over the cable news cycle, and warrant a response from the president. Since the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, we’ve witnessed a rapid compression in the time between reports of police killings and widespread video evidence of them. Last year in South Carolina, Walter Scott was gunned down on a Saturday morning; a bystander who recorded the incident handed video over to Scott’s family the next day, after police began pushing a false narrative. On Tuesday, local antiviolence activists waited to see if police would release dashcam footage before posting a video of Sterling being shot multiple times on Facebook and Instagram.

But the Castile video crossed yet another new temporal threshold. As the 32-year-old black man sat bleeding, his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, broadcast in real time on Facebook Live the moments after his shooting, which would lead to his death later that night. The 10-minute livestream shows Reynolds calmly recounting how her boyfriend was shot as a police officer frantically tries to regain control of the situation. Later, Reynolds’s confused 4-year-old daughter consoles her grieving mother. Usually the witness account is a pointed rebuke of a police narrative that is already seeping into the national consciousness, but this time it was the stark launching point for a new bout of anguish. This time, the witness told the story first.

The video has quickly changed the tenor of the conversation over police brutality, with many journalists whose job it is to document death at the hands of law enforcement calling it “shattering” and “horrifying.” It is certainly the most important video captured thanks to Facebook’s livestreaming effort and probably one of the most important capsules of humanity to ever emerge from the social network. But is Facebook, the platform whose biggest livestreaming success to date is Chewbacca Mom, really the best place for such vital footage?

Hours after it was posted, as knowledge of the shooting was spreading rapidly across the web, Reynolds’s video was scrubbed from the social network with no explanation, along with her Facebook account. Facebook restored the video late Wednesday night, blaming the removal on a technical glitch. “We’re very sorry that the video was temporarily inaccessible. It was down due to a technical glitch and restored as soon as we were able to investigate,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Facebook refuses to explain what the “glitch” was. Did the Live feature buckle due to the influx of traffic? Was the video removed automatically due to its graphic content, along with her account? Did a poorly paid contract worker toss it into the abyss by accident? Was it taken down because of police intervention (which Facebook denies)?

Without knowing — and because Facebook appears unlikely to clarify — it’s impossible to say how Facebook will respond to future graphic content that has clear societal value. “The place we all go to exercise our freedom of expression and to share opinions is a private platform run by a private company, and they don’t let us say every single thing that’s legal,” says Daphne Keller, director of intermediary liability at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society and a former head lawyer for Google’s web search team. “They only let us say the things that their policies permit. There’s good business reasons for that for them, but it’s a strange impact for us as a society sharing speech.”

For any video-supporting platform, judging the importance of a piece of violent footage against its potential to enlighten users is a careful balancing act. Every major platform bans depictions of gratuitous violence but carves out exceptions for content that is “newsworthy” or “of public interest.” YouTube was the first to grapple with this issue, crafting a newsworthiness exception on the fly to keep up a video showing the killing of an Iranian protester during the country’s civil unrest in 2009. Since then, other platforms have emerged with a clear activist bent. Periscope CEO Kayvon Beykpour has said that he decided to build the startup because he wanted to be able to livestream protests in Turkey in 2014. The American Civil Liberties Union has an app called Mobile Justice that lets users record police misconduct.

But Facebook has a scale and speed that the other platforms — even YouTube — lack. That makes it the most vital conduit available to the disenfranchised. It’s the place where everyone already is, and where everyone is more likely to see the important thing. “I wanted to put it on Facebook to go viral so that the people could see,” Reynolds said in an interview that was livestreamed on the social network. “I wanted the people to determine who was right and who was wrong. … I wanted the people to be the testimony here.”

The world’s largest social network has granted itself yet another world-altering power. So how will the company wield it? Increased transparency would be helpful, either by making more specific community guidelines or divulging data about how many videos are removed each month and for what reasons. And embracing less sunny stories that are vital to our democratic process would help telegraph the company’s priorities. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made an effort at this by acknowledging the importance of Reynolds’s video in a Thursday-night post. “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,” he said. “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.”

Facebook has granted citizens a way to circumvent the gatekeepers. But at the end of the day, there’s still a person in Menlo Park holding all the keys. “There are ways to be more transparent,” says Keller, “all of which I think would help in building more public trust, more understanding, more ability for people to agree intelligently.”

[Update: On Friday afternoon, Facebook released this statement responding to the incident.]