Murders, suicides and rapes: Facebook’s major video problem

A nationwide manhunt for Steve Stephens, the 37-year-old from Cleveland who uploaded a video to Facebook of himself shooting an elderly stranger in the head, came to an end today. Stephens committed suicide after a brief car chase with state police in Erie, Pennsylvania. His crime, which took place this past Sunday, sparked outrage not only because of the violence itself, but also the way Facebook handled the situation. It took the social network over two hours to take the video down, although it claims this was because it wasn’t flagged immediately by other users. Facebook says Stephens’ actions weren’t reported until he used the Live feature to stream his murder confession, about an hour and 45 minutes after the shooting video was uploaded. His account has since been suspended.

“This is a horrific crime and we do not allow this kind of content on Facebook,” the company said in a statement. “We work hard to keep a safe environment on Facebook, and are in touch with law enforcement in emergencies when there are direct threats to physical safety.” As it stands, Facebook relies heavily on people flagging graphic content (the same way it does sketchy ads), which means individuals have to actually see something dreadful before they can flag it. As Wired reported earlier this year, Facebook has opted not to use algorithms to censor videos like this before they’re posted, claiming that it doesn’t want to be accused of violating freedom-of-speech rights. But, as these types of cases mushroom, the company may be forced to change its stance sooner than later.

A photo of Steve Stephens.

It could be hard for the company to build an algorithm that can successfully tell the difference between a video of someone being murdered and a clip from, say, a Jason Bourne movie. But, according to Facebook VP of Operations Justin Osofsky, his team is constantly exploring new technologies that can help create a safer environment on the site. Osofsky pointed to artificial intelligence in particular, which he says is already helping prevent certain graphic videos from being reshared in their entirety. Facebook’s explanation of this is confusing, though: It says people “are still able to share portions of the videos in order to condemn them or for public awareness, as many news outlets are doing in reporting the story online and on television.”

The company didn’t clarify how the feature works when we reached out, but it’s clear a video like Stephens’ should be removed completely and immediately. And, as a result of this weekend’s events, Osofsky said Facebook is reviewing its reporting system to ensure that people can flag explicit videos and other content “as easily and as quickly as possible.”

Facebook has really jumped very quickly into the video space, which is exciting, but it’s taking a fail-fast approach to it.

Unfortunately for Facebook, Stephens’ case isn’t the first time it has faced scrutiny over people using its tools to promote violence. Back in March, Chicago police charged a 14-year-old boy after he used Facebook Live to broadcast the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl, which was just one of many gruesome clips that hit Facebook recently. Per The Wall Street Journal, more than 60 sensitive videos, including physical beatings, suicides and murders, have been streamed on Facebook Live since it launched to the public last year. This begs the question: Should the Federal Communications Commission regulate social networks the way it does TV? In 2015, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said there were no plans to do so, claiming he wasn’t sure the agency’s authority extended to “picking and choosing among websites.”

The FCC, now headed by Ajit Pai under President Donald Trump, did not respond to our request for comment on the matter. That said, a source inside a major video-streaming company thinks services such as Facebook Live, Periscope and YouTube Live would benefit from having a “delay” safeguard in place. This could be similar in practice to how TV networks handle live events, which always feature a seven-second delay in case something unexpected happens. Remember when Justin Timberlake uncovered Janet Jackson’s nipple during the Super Bowl 38 halftime show in 2004? This delay system is designed to prevent scenes like those from showing up on your TV.

“Facebook has really jumped very quickly into the video space, which is exciting, but it’s taking a fail-fast approach to it,” the source, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “In the desire to push Live out to as many people as possible, there were a lot of corners that were cut. And when you take a fail-fast approach to something like live-streaming video, it’s not surprising that you come across these scenarios in which you have these huge ethical dilemmas of streaming a murder, sexual violence or something else.”

Social Media Illustrations

As for why individuals are using these platforms to broadcasts their heinous acts, Janis L. Whitlock, a research scientist at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, says it’s hard to pinpoint the reason because there’s no way you can do an experimental control. She says there’s a good chance Stephens was struggling with a mental illness and saw his victim, 74-year-old Robert Godwin Sr., as an object in an ongoing fantasy. Whitlock says that while there’s a good side to these social networks, they also tend to bring out the worst in people, especially those who are craving attention: “They make the most ugly of us, the most ugly in us, visible.”

“The fact that you can have witnesses, like billions of people witness something in a tiny period of time, it has to have an enormous impact on the human psyche,” she says. “How does that interact with the things that people do, or choose not to do? We don’t know yet, but it does, absolutely. I have no doubt about that as a psychologist.” Whitlock says companies like Facebook must start taking some civic responsibility, adding that there needs to be a conversation between it and other internet giants about how their products “interact with who humans are” and how they can expose someone’s limitations and potentials.

“How is it that we can use and structure these things to really amplify all the ways in which we’re amazing,” Whitlock says, “and not the ways in which we’re disgusting?”

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Japan’s noisy iPhone problem

I cancelled my iPhone 7 Plus order last week. Yes, I still had a two-week wait before it was scheduled to arrive, but it wasn’t impatience that got the better of me. It was where I live: in Japan. iPhones sold here (and in Korea) hold the dubious honor of being customized for their markets. We’re not talking about extra mobile wallet functions, but a limitation; a constraint. Ever since the iPhone 3GS arrived in Japan in 2008, taking a photo and even a screenshot (ugh) has been accompanied by a mandatory shutter noise — one that iPhone users elsewhere probably turn off right away. Even switching to mute mode doesn’t halt the awkward ‘passht’ added to discourage covert photography. I’ll soon leave Japan and return to my native England, at which point I’ll reconsider upgrading. I’m not buying another Japanese iPhone.

The mandatory shutter sound has been a part of Japan’s camera phones almost ever since they went on sale back in 2000. This was the first country to sell camera-equipped phones that could send photos electronically. Kyocera’s VP-210 had what was then a cutting-edge 0.11-megapixel sensor: the era of camera phones had begun.

There’s a misconception that there’s some kind of legal provision to ensure smartphones (or feature phones), make a noise when you take a photo. That isn’t the case.

As these devices proliferated and people got used to attaching photos to emails (“sha-mail”), voyeuristic “up-skirt” photography became a concern — especially in crowded places like rush-hour trains. According to Akky Akimoto, writing for The Japan Times in 2013, people were discussing the issue online as early as 2001. There’s a misconception that there’s some kind of legal provision to ensure smartphones (or feature phones), make a noise when you take a photo, but that isn’t the case.

Over these years, sending photos became a core feature of modern cell phones, and wireless carriers took it upon themselves to ensure that all the models they offered came with built-in cameras with shutter sounds that couldn’t be disabled. NTT Docomo has said it was implemented “to prevent secret filming or other privacy issues.” A SoftBank spokesman gave me a similar answer: “When we first offered camera phones and the ‘sha-mail’ service around 2000, we requested that manufacturers make the shutter sound compulsory, even on manner mode.”

“This was done to prevent camera phones from being used in ways offensive to public morals. We continue to request handset manufacturers use the shutter sound,” the spokesperson continued.

Phone manufacturers and carriers have cooperated ever since, ensuring all phones sold in Japan make a sound for still videos, still photos and screenshots. While this might been seen as a well-intentioned move (and one that could discourage would-be voyeurs), the companies are protecting themselves against legal repercussions from anyone who gets harassed or sees photos of themselves online or elsewhere, taken without their permission.

Apple’s iPhone is the same. Worse, the iPhone 7 actually has the noisiest shutter sound yet — something that my Japan-based colleagues are blaming on the new stereo speakers.

Japan residents could buy an overseas model: Recent iPhone models share a lot of LTE bands across countries, and the company even displays all the radio bands of each iPhone model it sells. However, the iPhone 7 is the first Apple phone to work with the country’s well-established Suica contactless payment system, used in convenience stores, restaurants and the country’s national railway. The American variant (or the Hong Kong one, anywhere but Japan) doesn’t include the same contactless hardware.

The mandatory noise hasn’t solved the problem of cellphone voyeurs either. According to the Japan Times, which cites an NHK TV program from early 2013, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police had seen a 24 percent annual rise in “camera voyeurism” — up 60 percent from 2007. The majority of those (64 percent) had used cell-phone cameras, although there’s something to be said for the remaining percentage that were taken on cameras that weren’t forced to make a shutter sound.

Limiting creepy photographers with enforced smartphone sounds is worsened by the availability (especially in Japan and Korea) of “manner camera” apps where users can take photos on iPhones and other smartphones with no faux shutter sound. These are often slower, typically taking lower-quality pictures; you also can’t launch them from drop-down menus or the lock screen. Unfortunately, if unscrupulous types really want to take covert photos of unsuspecting people on trains and elsewhere, they will find a way to do so.

With the current iteration of iOS 10, Japanese users can tinker with the phone’s accessibility functions to add a mute toggle to the screen that silences the shutter noise. But this is likely a bug that Apple will squash in a later update, which means my new iPhone order will remain cancelled for now. I’m not some kind of covert photographer; I just hate being so conspicuous when I use my smartphone. I can tolerate it in Japan, where everyone suffers the same fate, but anywhere else, where you can mute your phone, I look like an incompetent fool who got his first smartphone in 2016: “You can mute that, you know?” “No, I can’t..”

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