Social networks must take some responsibility for their own content

If you were designing a technology purpose-built for attention-seeking monsters, it would probably look something like social media.
If you were designing a technology purpose-built for attention-seeking monsters, it would probably look something like social media.

On Tuesday, Thai police said Wuttisan Wongtalay, a 20-year-old man, had live-streamed himself killing his 11-month-old daughter in two videos before he committed suicide. It took Facebook almost 24 hours to take down the gruesome videos, by which time they had been viewed 370,000 times between them.

Hours later, three men in Sweden were jailed for broadcasting the rape of a woman on Facebook Live. Only last week, footage of a man murdering a 74-year-old in Cleveland, Ohio, was posted on the network, followed by a live broadcast of the killer, Steve Stephens, boasting about his exploits.

Wongtalay's wife, Chiranut Trairat, said she did not blame Facebook, but the world's biggest social network is rapidly discovering that the ability to instantly share, broadcast and publicise yourself to the planet has a dark side.

"This is an appalling incident and our hearts go out to the family of the victim," a spokesman said. "There is absolutely no place for content of this kind on Facebook and it has now been removed."

Last week, after publicity around the Cleveland murder, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg said: "We have a lot of work and we will keep doing all we can to help prevent tragedies like this from happening again," before moving swiftly on to other distractions: virtual reality and mind reading.

The internet has hosted the most vile sections of humanity since its early days, of course. But there has never been a platform as big or as powerful as Facebook, which is closing in on 2 billion monthly users. And there has never been an easier way to create a window into your world as Facebook Live.

The feature, launched early last year, has been a top priority since 2015, when rival apps Periscope and Meerkat surfaced. In Facebook's typical fashion, it spotted a threat and decided to neutralise it, rapidly building its own live-streaming service with more thought for launching the product than assessing its value or consequences.

Since it was made available to the public, Facebook Live has been heavily promoted within the app and with visible advertising campaigns encouraging us to "Go Live".

Facebook's news feed has prioritised live video to encourage engagement.

"Live is like having a TV camera in your pocket. Anyone with a phone now has the power to broadcast to anyone in the world," Zuckerberg said when it was launched.

But unlike TV, there is no quality filter or editor on Facebook Live. There is no room for second thoughts, no "should I really post this?" Two taps on a smartphone, a timer counts down 3, 2, 1, and you're on air.

If you were designing a technology purpose-built for attention-seeking monsters, it would probably look something like this.

Of course, Facebook doesn't intend to make a product for criminals. Its currency is engagement, and it trades in it expertly. Every "like", reaction or view we receive on Facebook generates a chemical response and creates a feedback loop that pushes engaging material up the news feed.

Unfortunately, as the rise of clickbait and fake news has shown, this benefits the outrageous and controversial at the expense of the sane.

Criminals have courted notoriety in the media for decades, but social media's instant and measurable feedback is a step up. And there is no better manifestation of instant than live video. In recent months, Zuckerberg has become more conciliatory and has appeared more concerned about Facebook's impact.

He has admitted, albeit tardily, that it has a problem with fake news. Last week, Facebook said it was reviewing how it handles violent videos. It goes without saying that this should be Facebook's top priority. Perhaps live video was launched too soon. Some would argue it should never have been launched.

Social networks can't be held entirely responsible for everything that happens on them, of course. But they are at least partially responsible.

At the very least, Facebook needs to overhaul how it supervises material, focusing specifically on Live, which has attracted particular attention. There is no reasonable explanation for the horrific videos from Thailand sitting online for an entire day.

But in the longer term, it needs to examine the mechanisms that attract deviants to broadcast their acts on the social network. That is a more difficult question to answer.

The Daily Telegraph