The 30-minute attack, which shows a man bound, gagged and cut with a knife, was viewed live by 16,000 people and eventually removed by Facebook for violating its community standards. Facebook prohibits the celebration or glorification of crimes on its platform.
On Thursday, conservative news site the Daily Caller repackaged the same footage and re-uploaded it to Facebook, along with the message: “Share if you think this is a hate crime.”
The video, which appears to be three minutes shorter than the original but otherwise appears to be identical, has since been watched more than 7m times and shared more than 200,000 times.
Facebook appears to be content to allow the video to exist on its network.
The four suspects deemed responsible for the broadcast have all been charged with hate crimes. However, by reframing the video as an attempt to condemn and raise awareness about violence, the rightwing publication appears to have dodged Facebook’s censors.
The case highlights the enormous challenge faced by the social network when it comes to moderating content – particularly when, as in this case, it is uploaded by a media publisher.
Facebook has sometimes struggled when deciding how to deal with sensitive journalistic content and was widely criticized for removing the iconic Vietnam war photo “napalm girl” for violating its ban on child nudity. In this case, an opinionated and often inflammatory news website has turned the exact same footage into a permissible piece of shareable news content.
Sarah Roberts, an information studies professor at UCLA and one of the few academics who study commercial content moderation, said that Facebook has a “huge mess on its hands”.
“Material that is barely watchable by most people – whether it’s violent or sexually explicit, but manages not to break the rules – that’s the material that drives the most eyeballs to a site,” she said.
The Daily Caller relies heavily on Facebook as a distribution channel, and both are incentivized to get people to click and share content so they can generate advertising revenue. “There’s a symbiosis that would be naive to ignore.”
“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,” the post said. “However, if someone shared the same video to mock the victim or celebrate the shooting, we would remove the video.”
Facebook has reporting tools that allow users to flag problematic content. Flagged items get sent to a moderation team, which makes editorial judgements based on the content and context of the item. If an item violates the site’s community standards, it gets removed.
The Facebook Live video of the attack on the man in Chicago initially appeared to escape the network’s moderators after the broadcast was allowed to continue for 30 minutes. The company has refused to explain why the live torture video wasn’t removed sooner.
Facebook and YouTube later deleted the video – and most media outlets have shown only short clips of the footage, blurring out the image of the victim, who has learning difficulties and, police have said, is deeply traumatized. Some news websites that have shown highly edited segments have also run warnings that they contain graphic content.
The Daily Caller appears to have resurfaced the video almost in its entirety, without blurring the victim’s face and without including any warnings. The video includes one particularly gruesome scene in which the victim’s scalp is sliced with a knife and has been viewed 7.2m times on Facebook in less than 36 hours.
Asked about the apparent inconsistency, Facebook said the statement it released about the original video, which it deleted, also applied to the Daily Caller version of the video, which is currently viewable on the network.
“We do not allow people to celebrate or glorify crimes on Facebook and have removed the original video for this reason,” the statement said. “In many instances, though, when people share this type of content, they are doing so to condemn violence or raise awareness about it. In that case, the video would be allowed.”
After the Facebook Live broadcast, four suspects were charged with hate crimes, kidnapping and battery. Police identified the suspects as Jordan Hill, Tesfaye Cooper and sisters Brittany Covington and Tanishia Covington. The suspects are all 18 years old except for Tanishia Covington, who is 24.