The young man positions his phone on the floor of what looks like an empty car park, the phone camera is on: he’s just starting a Facebook Live broadcast. Jared McLemore is shirtless, his skin shines from the sweat under the light of the street lamps. It must be a hot spring night in Memphis. He sits cross legged, but after just a few seconds, he walks away from the frame.
Nothing moves for what feels too long: it looks like the video has frozen on the tree that is in the background. The buzz of cars driving in the distance and quietly played music coming from afar reminds the viewer that the video’s still going. When Jared finally walks back, he’s holding a red container. He sits in the same initial position and starts pouring the liquid contained in the container all over his body. His chest starts to move faster, he’s overwrought now.
The rest of the video has been censored because of its graphic content, but news report websites have largely described it as such:‘the Memphis musician caught himself on fire.’ The liquid he poured on his body was gasoline. Jared took his own life while broadcasting the event live on Facebook, and he is not the only one who chose Facebook’s latest feature to do so. Over 50 Live suicides, murders, and violent incidents have been shared on the social media platform since the launch of the feature in January last year.
The performative nature of violence perfectly fits the digital format: violence has become viral, and an effective form of censorship is yet to be discovered. As if gore-websites and streamed executions weren’t enough, we – the users (or, at times, the voyeurs) – have a new phase to overcome: the live stream of murders and suicides.
Facebook Live has become the golden feature of the social media tycoon: Mark Zuckerberg himself has publicly praised the ‘revolutionary’ upgrade that Live will have on user’s communication spectrum. “When you interact live, you feel connected in a more personal way. This is a big shift in how we communicate, and it's going to create new opportunities for people to come together.” To make sure Zuckerberg’s positive words were properly receipted, the Facebook algorithm has been set to push live videos to the top of all feeds.
Facebook Live was a success until the media caught fiery momentum over the recurrence of Live brutal videos, calling out Facebook to “solve its violence problem.” Zuckerberg – after acknowledging the issue – reassured the online community that they are working towards a solution, starting with the recruitment of over 3,000 new workers to join its community operation team to review and speed up the removal of violent and inappropriate videos, to make Facebook a ‘safe’ space again. The solution proposed by Zuckerberg interestingly reveals another weakness in their own system: in a moment where increasing responsibility is handed to AI software, Facebook just prove that no matter how quickly technology becomes smarter, we’ll always need the human intervention to recognise and eventually stop violence.
What is it about a live broadcasted violent act that makes it more disturbing than a pre-recorded video portraying the same violence? Is it the hypothetical possibility that we – the stunned viewers – could potentially stop the tragedy from happening? Or is it the unpredictability that lies behind each Facebook Live event that makes us cringe? Pre-posted videos featuring graphic content are usually advertised as such, warning the viewer of the disturbing nature of the video.
While I sympathise with why the Facebook “community” might not want to see a video of a man lighting himself on fire during a casual scroll down the homepage feed, it’s crucial to realise that censoring violence at all cost also mean censoring important Live videos such as the one broadcasted by Diamond Reynolds documenting the aftermath of the killing of her boyfriend Philando Castle by a police officer in Minnesota.
There’s a double paradox behind this phenomenon and its proposed solutions: on the one side, making sure that Facebook remains an idyllic, violence-free virtual heaven, clearly – and it almost sounds ridiculous to state – has zero impact on the IRL spread of violence and its consequential online life. On the other, the censorship (and removal) of videos that include graphic content might end up limiting the use of Facebook Live to record videos able to become important accounts for justice.
The truth is that it’s not Facebook Live that has to figure out its violence problem, it’s the whole Internet that needs to figure out its violence problem. Facebook Live is merely the most recent and direct channel to communicate distress, to call for attention, to make sure – no matter how disturbed the intentions are – that there’s going to be an audience. If anything, the contemporaneity of the Live event allows – to some extent – a potential intervention.
The flaws of Facebook Live just brought to the surface the Internet’s systemic violence issue, a problem that has been diminished and avoided for way too long. Now that it’s finally pouring out, it certainly won’t be Zuckerberg’s flimsy solution that’s going to contain it.