On Sunday, a horrifying video of a random murder was shared across Facebook for hours before being taken off the site. Millions watched Steve Stephens declare his mission to kill and, consequently, murder Robert Godwin Sr., a 74-year-old man who was picking up aluminum cans on the side of the road. Within 48 hours, Stephens shot himself in his car during a police chase that ended a nationwide search for the murderer. Despite the fact that Stephens is no longer out there, the discussion of this tragedy is not over. The worldwide audience of Godwin’s death over Facebook reopened the question about crime posted on social media, and how it must be addressed.
This horrible video circulated around Facebook for two hours and 11 minutes before the social media site took it down. Stephens first posted a video about his intent to kill at 2:09 p.m.; his second video was his murder of Godwin at 2:11 p.m., and soon after, he used Facebook Live to confess to his crimes. However, no Facebook user reported it until 3:59 p.m. Even then, it took until 4:22 p.m. to be removed from the site. Facebook is looking into ways to shorten the reaction time. This is evidently necessary. Many innocent people were subject to Stephens’ heinous crime as the video appeared on their timelines. While Facebook must be wary not to censor its content, videos of violent acts have no place on the website. Evidently, there needed to be a quicker reaction once the video was reported. Facebook should also make efforts to identify videos based on their content. For example, if a video contains gun shots or the words “I killed,” the video should be tagged for review. Acoustic analysis and other sensors allow police to locate where gun shots are fired. Facebook should build on this technology to counter violent videos. Stephens’ video states, “Found me somebody I’m going to kill, this guy right here, this old dude.” With this content, Facebook should have reviewed it immediately.
Crimes aimed to have large audiences are nothing new. The first live broadcast of murder happened decades ago when Lee Harvey Oswald killed President John F. Kennedy, and soon after, another occurred when Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby. Since then, television and the internet have broadcasted many live crimes. Facebook Live itself was used in January to air four people in Chicago abusing a disabled 18-year-old man. This murder publicized the problem of how crimes posted on social media should be addressed. The publicity of the crime in some ways worsens the crime. Not only does the criminal achieve the attention that he craved through his actions, but the victims of the crime and their family are not able to cope and heal privately. With this in mind, the crimes posted on social media for attention should receive an additional penalty, such as an enhancement or a minimum penalty for their actions. Although this does not apply anymore to this situation because Stephens will never be sentenced, it is still an important addition to the law. Live broadcasting is here to stay, and the law must deter people from using it to receive attention for their violent crimes.
The online distribution of videos containing violent crimes have more perpetrators than the criminal himself. “Please please please stop retweeting that video and report anyone who has posted it! That is my grandfather show some respect,” Godwin’s grandson, Ryan Godwin, tweeted on Sunday. It is sad that he had to ask. Facebook also relies on users to report inappropriate content on its site. It is inexcusable that it took two hours and millions of views for someone to report its content. Social media users must recognize that viewing and sharing heinous crimes only encourages similar crimes to be broadcasted as well. Users must also realize how disrespectful and tragic sharing the content is for the victims of the crime. It is up to social media users both to prevent the spread of horrible content and to report its presence.
Robert Godwin Sr.’s death was tragic. Its time on social media extended the horrible crime. It also highlighted faults with the social media giant Facebook, the law and social media users themselves. Hopefully, its publicity provides enough awareness that at the next broadcasting of a public crime, each aspect will better address the situation.
Alyssa Luis is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.