By Emanuella Grinberg
(CNN) — Facebook Live has only been available to the masses since January, and in that time we’ve pretty much witnessed the full scope of humanity.
We laughed along with “Chewbacca Mask Lady” and delighted in the (accidental) live stream of a childbirth. Live streams via Facebook (and Periscope and Snapchat) of House sit-ins made us feel engaged in the democratic process without the hassle of leaving home.
Recently, things have taken a serious turn, with videos of shootings, protests, beatings and more shootings served up in our feeds, often without warning.
If you feel like you’re becoming inured to it all, expressing a sentence of outrage, clicking share and moving on, you’re not alone. This is not Periscope or Meerkat, after all. It’s Facebook, where your grandmother has an opinion on the live stream of a Georgia woman beating her teenage daughter.
Before you bemoan the demise of civilization and threaten to quit social media (never gonna happen), consider the following:
Video can be especially powerful when you cut out the middleman
Protesters from Turkey to Minneapolis sidestepped traditional media when they live-streamed demonstrations, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions.
Or, imagine if Diamond Reynolds had called the local news station after Philando Castile was shot instead of hitting record on her smartphone. Would they have arrived in time to capture his life slipping away? Would they have come at all?
Amateur video is more personal and raw, compared to what you see in a newscast or edited video, where you’re prepared for what you’re going to see.
… but external information can be useful, too
We would be remiss to downplay the benefits of editorial gatekeepers like, say, CNN, which go to great lengths to vet videos for their source and context before sharing it with viewers.
Same goes for law enforcement, which evaluates the circumstances surrounding a video to form a complete picture before making an arrest.
“The technology can be used to help us understand what happened in that space and time, but it’s not the end-all be-all,” said CNN law enforcement analyst Cedric Alexander, the public safety director at the DeKalb County Police Department in Georgia.
“Depending on where you enter the video there’s also a beginning, a middle and an end, and you have to be mindful of those circumstances.”
It draws attention to potential crimes and injustice more quickly
Watching Castile’s life slip away in a car after being shot by an officer may have been hard to watch. But it galvanized a social justice movement and compelled a response from government agents at various levels up to President Barack Obama.
Already, there are numerous examples of Facebook Live events leading to arrests in shootings, beatings, even in allegations of sexual harassment.
All of which is basically what Facebook hoped for when it launched the product. Here’s what the company said on July 8, after the video of Castile went viral.
“Live video allows us to see what’s happening in the world as it happens. Just as it gives us a window into the best moments in people’s lives, it can also let us bear witness to the worst. Live video can be a powerful tool in a crisis — to document events or ask for help,” the statement said.
Too much violence on video *could* desensitize us
Research suggests that binging on televised violence can lead to apathy. While it’s too early to say whether live-streamed violence on Facebook will make you antisocial, information overload is a legitimate concern, some psychologists say.
“I worry that any given live feed is getting supplanted by the next live feed and we may be getting desensitized to all of it,” said Kaveri Subrahmanyam, associate director of California State University’s Children’s Digital Media Center, which focuses on media psychology.
“If we’re watching a lot of this, you have to wonder how memorable any live video is. Do we just watch it and forget it immediately after happens? I fear that may the case.”
… and cause you to retreat from society
For all the power of live video, the downside is that it can make us fearful, said psychologist Jerri Lynn Hogg, the former president of the American Psychological Association’s Society for Media Psychology and Technology.
“There’s a numbness that we develop to protect ourselves. We withdraw into families where we feel secure and resist engaging in the issues, rather than work with others to develop solutions,” she said.
But it’s a small price to pay for an open, connected society
But Hogg and others, including Facebook, say the benefits far outweigh the perceived drawbacks — and, we’re already seeing the benefits.
“When I look at recent efforts on behalf of political leaders, for example, to live-stream events like party conventions in the U.S. or debates over policy like the recent Brexit vote in the UK, I’m overwhelmingly encouraged by this technology’s audience-magnifying potential,” said California State University Professor Michael Germano, who teaches courses in internet law and information policy.
“It feels like an evolutionary step in media consumption and not necessarily a frightening or disturbing one. With that said, there will be disturbing bumps along the road as the discourse adapts and standards evolve. That’s all part of the process.”
… as long as there are standards that everyone is aware of
None of what’s happening on Facebook is unprecedented or unusual when it comes to media innovation. Twitter, which Facebook leapfrogged over to become the leader in live-streaming, is dealing with similar anxieties in the form of trolling and abuse.
Developing standards is the task at hand right now for Facebook, said industry analyst Scott Kessler of S&P Global Market Intelligence, who covers Facebook.
“They have to figure out how to strike a balance between decorum and freedom,” he said. “The onus is on these companies to make clear they actually have a process.”
… Which there are, sort of
Facebook says the same community standards exist for all content on Facebook, including live video.
Viewers can report potentially offensive material 24/7 to real people dedicated to responding to such reports. If a live stream starts blowing up, staffers monitor it for possible violations and interrupt it if need be.
Take, for example, the recent video of a mother repeatedly slapping and hitting her teenage daughter on Facebook Live. The original video, which sparked allegations of child abuse and prompted a law enforcement investigation, is gone from the original account it was posted on. However, copies remain on Facebook, in posts condemning the violence.
As Facebook explains in their statement:
“One of the most sensitive situations involves people sharing violent or graphic images of events taking place in the real world. In those situations, context and degree are everything. For instance, if a person witnessed a shooting, and used Facebook Live to raise awareness or find the shooter, we would allow it. However, if someone shared the same video to mock the victim or celebrate the shooting, we would remove the video.”
One line in their community standards hints at how far they’re willing to go in the name of an open, connected society:
“Because of the diversity of our global community, please keep in mind that something that may be disagreeable or disturbing to you may not violate our Community Standards.”
And, don’t forget…
If you don’t like watching videos of people being shot, remember that you can always look away, scroll past or otherwise avoid your feed.
In other words, put the phone down.