In the last year, Facebook Live has been plagued by occasional headlines reporting on shocking instances of violence being streamed through the platform. The sporadic quality of these reports easily creates an impression that this is exception. There have always been violent crimes, right? Therefore it stands to reason that the spread of the platform would inevitably create occasional incidences in which it featured in such crimes. However as this BuzzFeed analysis makes clear, such incidences have been a regular occurrence on the platform since its inception:
Facebook Live has a violence problem, one far more troubling than national headlines make clear. At least 45 instances of violence — shootings, rapes, murders, child abuse, torture, suicides, and attempted suicides — have been broadcast via Live since its debut in December 2015, a new BuzzFeed News analysis found. That’s an average rate of about two instances per month.
When it launched, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg touted Live as “a great medium for sharing raw and visceral content.” But from its inception and over thee many months that followed that became darkly true — to terrible effect. Videos of shootings, murders, suicides, and rapes began to show up on Facebook with alarming regularity.
What should we make of this? There are important issues raised about the accountability of platforms, as Facebook have refused to comment on this trend and instead simply pointed to past statements by Mark Zuckerberg and their committed to hiring new moderators. But there is enough evidence of a relationship between Facebook Live and violence that we should take seriously the possibility that in some cases the platform might be contributing to crime generation rather than merely reflecting it.
The disturbing possibility invoked in the article is that there is a mimetic dynamic at work, as the possibility for immediate notoriety and a growing list of exemplars incline people towards horrific acts which might have remained embryonic without these two conditions:
Some criminologists worry that broadcasts of violent crimes to Facebook Live might lead perpetrators of violent crime to view the platform as a means of gaining infamy, bypassing the traditional filter of the media. “The most likely impact is that it’s going to be a model of how to distribute and immortalize your act,” Ray Surette, a criminal justice professor at the University of Central Florida, told BuzzFeed News.
Jacqueline Helfgott, chair of the Criminal Justice Department at Seattle University, agreed. “It’s making it easier for people to gain notoriety instantly without gatekeepers,” she told BuzzFeed News. “I definitely think there’s a mimetic effect.”
The mainstream media have previously been gatekeepers to such notoriety. But now it’s possible to achieve it through virality, assuming moderators prove unable to near immediately remove such videos. There’s an incredibly bleak book by Franco Berardi, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, which offers useful resources for making sense of this possibility. He argues that mass murderers are “the extreme manifestation of one of the main trends of our age” involving “people who are suffering themselves, and who become criminals because this is their way both to express their psychopathic need for publicity and also to find a suicidal exit from their present hell” (pg 3).
In such crimes we see a “violent acting out, as disconnected from a conscious elaboration: just do it” (pg. 56) but one licensed by a desire for infamy. It is this fame which motivates the act, offering the possibility of transcending one’s own subordination by living on forever, showing them forever:
Like the large majority of the generation that has grown up in the Neoliberal decades, the young Eric Harris is totally persuaded that the strong have the right to win and predate. It is the natural philosophy that he has absorbed in the social environment in which he was educated, and it also the underlying rationale of the video games that he loved to play. But the young man knew very well that he was not going to be a winner in the social game. Instead, he decides that he will be a winner for a moment; I’ll kill and I’ll win; then I’ll die. The murderous action is conceived as revenge for the humiliation that he has suffered in the daily game of competition. (Pg 50)
The infamy is what ensures that victory will live on. It cannot be reversed. Through their actions they achieve the status they were constantly seeking yet could never receive within life. As with much work of this type, it’s speculative social science of a sort that can be critiqued on empirical grounds. But the underlying thesis is one we should take seriously: the promise of infamy coupled with the release of violently acting out is a socially produced temptation in a profoundly unequal society which valorises ‘winners’ while attacking ‘losers’. These exceptional acts need to be understood as extreme responses to social conditions which are pervasive.
If there is any accuracy to these claims, we ought to be extremely concerned about Facebook Live. The barriers to entry for Berardi’s ‘heroes’ are lowering radically: the pathway to infamy can be found in the everyday object of the smartphone, rather than being reliant on recognition from the mass media. What might seem like exceptional cases, inexplicable in terms of wider social forces, could in fact herald the dark future of mediatization.