A rape and a shooting that recently made the rounds on social media are the unintended consequences of major pushes into real-time video by sites and apps such as Periscope, Meerkat, Facebook Live, Twitch and, soon, YouTube Connect.
At Facebook’s F8 developer conference today, CEO Mark Zuckerberg described technology that will allow any camera to stream video onto the social network, even from drones.
But some of the footage that has been uploaded so far already is worrisome.
In Columbus, Ohio, a 29-year-old man was accused April 5 of raping a 17-year-old girl while a friend streamed video of the assault live over Periscope, which is owned by Twitter. The victim reportedly can be heard pleading on camera, “No, it hurts so much,” “Please stop,” and “Please, no.”
In Chicago on March 31, video emerged online of a man who was filming himself live on Facebook as he visited the neighborhood where he grew up before he was fired upon at least 16 times by an unknown assailant. As of last week, the victim was in critical condition at an area hospital, having been hit with five of the 16 rounds, and police are searching for the suspect.
The victim, 31-year-old Brian “Sugar Ray” Fields, reportedly was visiting his mother in Chicago. In the startling video, Fields is at first smiling and describing the area around him. His eyes momentarily move away from the camera as he appears to see something coming toward him. Then shots ring out, the camera fumbles to the ground, and then an assailant enters the frame with gun in hand and squeezes out several more shots. The victim’s mother told the Chicago Tribune that she found her wounded son on the ground after the attack with his cellphone nearby.
The brutal incidents come as tech giants Google, Facebook and Twitter all launch major recent attempts to enter the increasingly popular sphere of social video streaming. Zuckerberg boasted on Facebook that its newly released Live was “like having a TV camera in your pocket. Anyone with a phone now has the power to broadcast to anyone in the world.” In recent weeks, tech blogs have been reporting that Google is planning to release its own live streaming service, YouTube Connect, soon.
Both are an effort to catch up with Periscope, a video streaming app purchased by Twitter early last year before it was even formally launched for an undisclosed amount that is rumored to have been in the tens of millions. Twitter itself was attempting to compete with another live streaming app called Meerkat that became a breakout hit at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in 2015. Twitter’s own popularity first exploded at the same conference in 2007.
But the recent attacks streamed live online also reveal a dark side of the trend that raises a host of questions for Silicon Valley. How can social media companies be expected to remove offensive content quickly enough when it’s being streamed live to the world? Does social live streaming conveniently remove responsibility from Silicon Valley companies, when in the past they have spent untold millions attempting to comply with takedown orders for content that was viewed as privacy invasive, overly extreme or a violation of copyright laws?
Facebook, for its part, said last week that it wants to intervene as quickly as possible when someone attempts to live stream pornography and will give users a method for reporting inappropriate content. Periscope prohibits “pornographic or overtly sexual content” and says it has a team responsible for identifying content considered offensive. But apparently neither company was able to intervene quickly enough in the recent violent incidents.
At least three users of the live streaming platform Twitch, which enables users to broadcast themselves playing video games, have been arrested by police live on camera, or SWAT teams have burst into their homes as a result of a prank called “swatting,” in which police are told that violence is occurring at a foe’s address. One of the arrestees was burglarized live on camera after police detained him. Twitch was purchased by Amazon for nearly $1 billion in 2014.
Corrections: A previous version of this story misstated the nature of a violent incident that was streamed live on Facebook. It was a shooting. A previous version also had the incorrect age for the Ohio man accused of raping a teenage girl while a friend streamed the assault over Periscope. He is 29.
G.W. Schulz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @GWSchulzCIR.