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Facebook streams depravity

From a column by Margaret Sullivan in The Washington Post:

Facebook’s existential crisis arrived with a vengeance this week. But Mark Zuckerberg didn’t want to talk about it much.

Yes, as he took the stage Tuesday in San Jose for his keynote address at a Facebook conference, he nodded to what had happened just two days before: A coldblooded killing posted for millions to see, with live-streamed commentary from the killer soon after.

“Our hearts go out to the family and friends of the victim in Cleveland,” Zuckerberg said. “We’ll do all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening.”

… His mention of the killing, while seemingly sincere, still felt like a kiss-off.

But it’s not surprising. Denial is, far too often, the Facebook way. …

With its nearly 2 billion monthly active users and more than $10 billion in annual profits, Facebook is better at making money and capturing eyeballs than at owning its equally huge power and responsibilities.

David Clinch, global news editor of the verification site Storyful, put it this way: “They have to take this issue very seriously and deal with it urgently, or they will surely face more calls for Facebook Live to be put on hold until far more robust controls are put in place.”

So far, that’s not happening.

In recent months, Facebook has gone out of its way to avoid acknowledging the obvious: It is a media company, not simply a platform its billion-plus users to share their lives with family and friends. …

But there are, of course, business reasons not to accept that. As soon as Facebook acknowledges that it is a publisher and not a platform, it may open itself up to lawsuits that could cut into profits fast.

Better, the thinking apparently goes, to stress technological advances and the ability to connect the whole world with virtual reality, baby pictures and exploding watermelons.

And its Facebook Live has been a force for good, too. Last year, Diamond Reynolds live-streamed the police shooting in Minnesota of her boyfriend, Philando Castile. It was important piece of bearing witness, made poignant by the presence of Reynolds’ tiny daughter.

At this crucial moment, Facebook’s language often sounds clueless, with its combination of stilted corporate euphemism and childlike wonder about “community” and “sharing.”

Following the Cleveland slaying, which remained on the site for hours, a Facebook statement put it like this: “This is a horrific crime and we do not allow this kind of content on Facebook.” Later, a Facebook vice president made a seemingly more thoughtful effort to describe the ways the company would use artificial intelligence and a better “reporting flow” to address the problem.

But none of this was specific enough, or serious enough. Nor did Zuckerberg’s brief mention help.

As Clinch wrote on Twitter: “There’s no algorithm for this and there is no cheap way to do this with community monitoring and inexperienced staff.”

Facebook is immensely and increasingly profitable — it made more than $10 billion last year, up dramatically from 2015. More than four of every five dollars comes from mobile ads, which makes video a more and more essential to corporate success.

But this can’t go on forever.

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