The Ethics of ‘Facebook Live’

Facebook and other Internet-based live video streaming services derive revenue from the attention of the service’s users. The more ads that the service user sees, the more ads and sponsored content that they click, the more revenue flows to the service provider. This is the basis of their business model. In 2016, Facebook began to offer a live streaming service as a way to compete with or eliminate their business competition. The Facebook Live service allows anyone with a smartphone and an Internet connection to broadcast live video from anywhere on the planet, free from the interference of editors or censors. 

Live streaming can expose corruption and wrong-doing among the powerful who have long had the ability to suppress unflattering or embarrassing information or information that runs contrary to official pronouncements of fact. This is an overall good that promotes justice. It has the possibility to benefit a few individuals...or millions of people depending on the scale of the injustice being perpetrated, e.g., exposing the petty corruption of a corporate manager to exposing the human rights abuses of a large nation-state. 

On the other hand, a general lack of editorial control means that no video can be barred from broadcast no matter how lewd, obscene, or depraved it might be. Examples of such events broadcast on Facebook Live in 2017 include the following (source). 

  • On April 16 Steve Stephens randomly targeted a 74-year old Cleveland man and murdered him. 
  • On April 27 a 49-year old Alabama man shot himself in the head while a thousand people watched
  • On April 26 a 20-year old father in Thailand hung his 11-month-old daughter 
  • In January, 40 people saw a 15-year old girl raped 

Who's Responsible?

There are two responsible parties in this dilemma: the individual making the decision to broadcast a morally objectionable event and the service provider that makes the technical aspects of the video stream possible. In response to the public shock over the types of incidents outlined above, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has committed to addressing the lack of control that his company exercises over what it allows --  through inaction -- to be streamed. Given the billions of global users with access to Facebook Live and the limited number of people available to serve as 24-hour a day content screeners, there’s no feasible solution on the horizon. (Using human content screeners presents its own ethical dilemma. Work involving continuous exposure to Internet depravity has been shown to have serious mental health consequences.) Some hold out hope for an automated system that can serve as a moral arbiter of streamed events but there has as yet been no practical demonstration of such a system. 

In the absence of a workable method of preventing ethically objectionable live streams, Mr. Zuckerberg remains responsible for his service offering. By not suspending the service until a screening system is in place and functioning, he has made the decision that the ethical problems associated with Facebook Live are subordinate to the monetary benefit it confers to his company. The beneficiaries of his decision are those who derive their income from the continued operation of Facebook as a business. 

Issues of Right vs. Wrong

Because the technology that enables live streaming is so new, laws have not yet caught up and the broadcast of criminal acts is not yet illegal. Legislative work is underway in New York State to rectify this but at the time of this writing, individuals who stream heinous acts can’t be prosecuted for pressing the “live” button on their streaming app. Though streaming a heinous act is not illegal, it does violate commonly held moral principles against aggrandizing oneself at the expense of a victim, glorifying violence, and promoting voyeurism. It also contributes to the overall debasement of humanity. 

Compromise Solution

There is a potential escape from this dilemma. While it is true that the positive benefit of vividly revealing wrong-doing through full motion video can be significant, there’s no proof that other Internet services are less effective at achieving the same result. For example, Twitter has been shown to be an effective tool for both exposing wrong-doing and allowing disenfranchised groups to draw attention to oppressors. The Arab Spring is one example. Though Twitter offers video streaming, it is used far more frequently in its original capacity as a text-based micro-blogging service. Under the Utilitarian school of ethical thought which seeks to promote the most good while doing the least harm, eliminating Facebook Live might be the preferred choice. This would reduce harm to the victims and viewers of heinous acts, while doing nothing to impede the use of less harmful tools like Twitter.