The Facebook problem

It finally happened. Video of a murder has been uploaded on Facebook. It was only a matter of time. A grandfather from Cleveland, Ohio, Robert Godwin Sr., 74 years old, was approached by a sick gunman and killed. The gunman recorded the video, including audio of what apparently is the killer’s voice just before shooting Godwin. Two days later, the alleged assailant, Steve W. Stephens, 37, shot and killed himself. The video of the murder was online for about two hours and of course seen and shared.

After I wrote a piece about fake news recently and cited Facebook as a continuing source, I had a query from a young family member asking me if I thought Facebook had any responsibility for cleaning up the fake news. My response was that Facebook only had a responsibility for continuing as the cesspool for political hysteria that it had become. I noted in the piece, originally published in the Houston Chronicle, that people who depended on Facebook or any other social media outlet for real news deserved what they got. Which frequently was garbage.

The posting of a video showing a murder is another matter. Facebook does screen and remove sick and objectionable content. But the fact that this video remained online for any length of time is reprehensible. There must be better mechanisms for screening content, and they must be found immediately. It’s one thing for news of a political nature to be totally fabricated and put online. I say, Who cares? The quality of the standard political dialogue on Facebook is not just lacking in accuracy but is shrill, inane and often nonsensical.  I was pleased when I asked my media ethics students, in a class of about 70, how many were using Facebook less than they did two years ago. Nearly every hand went up. Snapchat, it appears, is quickly taking over the college-age group as the social medium of choice, along with Instagram.

I am reminded of the case of former Pennsylvania Treasurer Budd Dwyer who killed himself in the state capital in 1987. He had been convicted of accepting a bribe. He called a news conference in which he said he had been framed. He then pulled out a .357 Magnum and shot himself in the mouth. I discuss this in ethics each semester. There were photographs and video taken of his suicide. And the handling of his case by news media is still an excellent teaching tool for students wanting to be journalists. Believe it or not, there are still some of us who believe that news media can and should be ethical. The photos and video of Dwyer are of course available on the Internet.  I have read that the video has been played in late-night clubs. That is another matter of societal sickness, but it’s really beyond the scope of this post.

The tragedy recorded and posted on Facebook is related only because of the media context. One can only feel the deepest sympathy for the family of Robert Godwin. And we perhaps will never know the added anguish over the fact that the tragic end of his life apparently was thought to be entertainment by a twisted mind. The various tools of social media have connected a world in ways never before imagined. But the potential damage and societal harm that they can create must also be dealt with by those responsible for the tools. Censorship is an awful and damaging tool of tyranny and corruption, and I remain as much a staunch advocate of free speech as ever. But there is nothing of a philosophical or legal nature that creates a right for those with sick minds to inflict their criminal activity on a digital public.

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