Do people who witness crimes on Facebook Live have an obligation to report what they’ve seen to the police? And if they won’t, can Mark Zuckerberg create the “global community” he dreams of?
by Danielle Dorsey
(Content warning: discussion of sexual assault)
Since the launch of Facebook Live, users have live streamed suicides, police brutality, bullying, and sexual assault. In March, 40 people watched on Facebook Live as a 15-year-old girl in Chicago was gang-raped by as many as six teenagers; none of the viewers notified authorities. The girl had been reported missing at the time, and was located by police after her mother approached the police superintendent directly and showed him screen shots from the live video.
Two suspects have since been arrested, but the victim’s mother claims her family is still being harassed in person and online, to the point that she no longer feels safe letting her children walk to school. The incident, and others like it, have called into question whether people who witness crimes on Facebook Live are obligated to report them.
So far, the answer isn’t a straight-forward one. Though so-called “Good Samaritan” laws exist in some regions, they’re rarely applied to social media. There’s also the fact that videos can be manipulated and witnesses might not be confident enough about what they saw to come forward. If laws do move to hold viewers accountable for failing to report crimes witnessed on social media, how will that work if a crime is committed in one state and the viewer is in another — or even a different country?
Earlier this year, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg published a manifesto of sorts that detailed his ambitious plans to turn Facebook into a “global community.” He spoke of developing the social infrastructure to build a community that will increase civic engagement and help keep us informed and safe. He received a lot of criticism for the piece, which many news organizations worried would lead to advertising dollars determining what news reached users. Though aspirational, Zuckerberg’s plans feel a bit premature when Facebook’s newest features are regularly being abused to commit crimes, and the platform has yet to figure out how to resolve the issue.
Last summer, a man committed suicide on Facebook Live shortly after the feature was launched, prompting the platform to develop new resources to provide support to people who may be suicidal. Now, if a video is flagged, the user is sent resources that include reaching out to a friend, contacting a helpline, or seeing tips and suggestions about working through difficult times. Facebook is also using artificial intelligence and pattern recognition based on previously reported posts made by people who appear to be suicidal. The Facebook team will then look into any post that is flagged by their pattern recognition tool to determine whether the user needs additional support.
While these efforts to empower users are admirable, the recent incident in Chicago proves that Facebook can’t always rely on users to do the right thing. One action they’ve taken –one that’s perhaps contradictory to their measures against suicide — is to stop relying so heavily on user feedback and expand the internal team that monitors live content.
Zuckerberg can’t shoulder all of the responsibility, though. The violence streamed on Facebook Live is a reflection of our society, one in which some young men consider sexual assault a badge of honor to be broadcast to the world. Regardless of whatever features or roadblocks are put in place to prevent and catch these perpetrators, these crimes will continue to happen far too often — both online and IRL — until we address the root cause.
Perhaps it’s time we create a global community that exists offline. After all, if we are so disconnected from each other that we are willing to ignore crimes happening in front of our faces, how can we be expected to take action against one that happens on a screen? Facebook’s new cause might seem noble, but we have to first bridge the gaps within our own communities before it can be done online.