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."
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?"