Why livestreaming means danger on a different scale

When livestreaming first became a mainstream craze in China and South Korea a couple of years ago, it didn’t seem either that scary or that much of a game-changer. I thought of it as an extension of webcams, and indulged my inner geek binge-watching popular noodle-eating stars from Seoul and smart-mouthed tattoo artists from Yunan turning themselves into internet celebrities.

The growing popularity of broadcasting live snippets from your life online, on platforms such as Tencent, Periscope and Twitch, is inevitable — and, at its most basic, not so different from sharing status updates on Facebook or uploading photos to Instagram. For businesses, too, livestream platforms and apps can be an attractive commercial proposition.

But there is also something hugely disquieting about it. As Facebook has discovered since introducing its Live feature, the difficulty of value-neutral technology is that in granting access to the giggling teen idols and the make-up advice mavens, the same applies to those with grimmer impulses. And when acts unfold on the internet as they actually occur, the results are both compelling, and often a lot less containable.

Recently this has had disturbing results: a rash of murders, rapes and other violent crimes have since been streamed in real time. One of the most prominent and horrific occurred last month, when a man named Wuttisan Wongtalay livestreamed a video on Facebook of himself murdering his 11-month-old daughter on a hotel rooftop in Phuket, before killing himself.

Just over a week previously, a man in Ohio recorded a video of himself murdering 74-year-old Robert Godwin Sr and then posted it on to Facebook. As the social network’s vice-president Justin Osofsky wrote in a blog post the next day: “It was a horrific crime — one that has no place on Facebook, and goes against our policies and everything we stand for.”

Yet the video of Godwin’s shooting stayed live for more than an hour and 45 minutes after it had been posted, while the clips that Wongtalay uploaded stayed live for roughly 24 hours, until they were removed following a request by the Thai police. Last week, Facebook announced that it would add 3,000 more moderators over the next year to combat the problem. “Over the last few weeks,” wrote the network’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, “we’ve seen people hurting themselves and others on Facebook — either live or in video posted later. It’s heartbreaking, and I’ve been reflecting on how we can do better for our community.”

Along with many others, and as we’ve seen over and over again with new technologies, I believe that there’s no way to shove genies back into bottles. No amount of regulation is going to prevent humans from taking to livestreaming, and that means all humans — even psychopaths, even murderers. It’s also true that many technological innovations come with a full set of evil possibilities included. So I’m trying to understand why the downside to livestreaming has set off such a strong alarm bell for me.

In part my fears about this type of broadcasting are to do with the fact that this is the most extreme, transparent internet medium so far — and the dangers seem correspondingly extreme. But it’s also to do with scale. Livestreaming is essentially democratic, in that it hands power, control and massive platforms over to everyone — excellent news for dissidents in oppressive regimes, for example. But it’s dangerous because it empowers everyone, irrespective of their intent, or their capacity for evil.

What’s more, the live component will render most attempts to regulate or moderate these streams futile. The sanity of the first version of the internet depended to a great extent on the ability of moderators to clean child pornography and beheading videos off such disparate places as crossword-solvers’ forums, chess-playing sites and an old-web hangout called Hot Tub. Unmoderated or poorly moderated sites went the way of derelict building sites — someone would swing by to smash the one remaining lightbulb, and soon these places went under, covered in piles of rubble.

But the scale of livestreaming today makes this seem impossible. As a medium grows larger, moderators can no longer screen original content, since they are limited to screening complaints, which also grow in number. This might be called the Eco Map Problem, after Umberto Eco’s essay on the impossibility of mapping a constantly changing territory on an exact 1:1 scale.

In any case, as India and the US, among other countries, have discovered, it’s almost impossible to keep the violence down — misinformation and false news spread very quickly via WhatsApp and other networks and, increasingly, so do clips from videos showing riots, lynchings and rapes.

If a solution is to be found it is still, ironically, far more likely to be technological rather than behavioural. Might the next wave of change on the internet see the rise of gated communities, where “residents” are protected by a clever filter from the growing violence and high crime in the stream?

This is not a Doomsday prediction. The net has generated other challenges and, to some extent, evolved solutions, and livestreaming also brings immense possibility in its wake. But it feels, too, like we’re heading into a wave of massive behaviour change online, without our life-jackets on or adequate preparation for the many levels of turbulence and disruption ahead.