Seconds after her boyfriend Philando Castile was shot by a police officer the night of July 6, Diamond Reynolds began streaming live (warning: graphic content) on Facebook with her smartphone.
Reynolds continued streaming for the next 10 minutes, describing to viewers what had happened as the officer continued pointing his gun into her car. In that time, as the bleeding Castile lost consciousness next to her, Reynolds was removed from the car, handcuffed, and locked in the back of a police cruiser with her four-year-old daughter.
The video started streaming at 9:06 p.m. CDT. The first comments began rolling in at 9:07 p.m.
“Don’t stop recording”
Unlike videos of police shootings that have swept the web in the past few years, in Castile’s case, people were watching the aftermath of police violence in real time. And with the rise of livestreaming on mobile phones and social media, it looks like these kinds of videos will only continue cropping up. Livestreaming could become the new 9-1-1: an emergency call to the people, rather than the police.
The whole world is watching
Castile’s video was not the first time livestreaming was used for social justice. Software like Bambuser and Ustream has been used for a few years now, from activists in Syria streaming the violence of their civil war to the Occupy movement using it to document police brutality in Zuccotti Park.
However, it was only in the past year that the big players started signing up. In early 2015, Twitter purchased and launched Periscope, an app that allows users to livestream their experiences and interact with viewers through messages and “hearts” sent by tapping the screen. By December of that same year, Facebook had launched its own, Facebook Live. Suddenly, livestreaming was in the hands of billions.
Livestreaming puts people there in a whole different way than recorded video of a violent event.
“It didn’t happen two weeks ago, it’s happening now,” says Sam Gregory, program director for Witness, a video-focused human rights organization. “You feel like you’re there alongside other people.”
And, says Gregory, “with live video, you have the possibility of trying to generate action while things are happening.”
Obviously, with most people watching these streams from a distance, comments and hearts won’t do much good. But Gregory has been working with a team to develop a set of tools and tactics called Mobil-Eyes Us, aimed at using livestream to empower “distant witnesses” to take action that goes further than passive online support.
One focus of the project is leveraging and publicizing viewer numbers. For example, fitting a livestreaming camera with an LED screen that shows a count of how many people are watching could pressure a police officer to behave. It could also be used at protests, showing a government official the demonstrators that couldn’t be there physically, but still showed up digitally.
Gregory also envisions creating a network of supporters with specific skills who can respond immediately when needed. For instance, an activist livestreaming an arrest could alert a lawyer, who could tune in and offer real-time legal advice as the situation develops.
The risks of going live
Jacob Crawford likes to watch cops.
He’s been doing it regularly since the early 2000s in Berkeley, California, not far from where the Black Panthers, the vanguards of cop monitoring in America, stood and observed arrests while holding loaded rifles in the 1960s. Crawford is a founding member of WeCopWatch, an organization dedicated to educating communities, such as Ferguson and Detroit, about their rights and the power of watching law enforcement.
For years, Crawford has been following police officers and showing up at scenes of arrests. He uses video to capture police activity and evidence of misconduct, so he is no technology skeptic. When it comes to livestreaming, however, he remains wary, especially at protests.
“You always have to be aware of what the consequences are,” Crawford says. “You’re providing the police in real time the ability to identify people that they may see as key people to arrest early. People who have leadership qualities, people who are speaking on the mic.”
Unlike regular video posts where you can protect identities with blurring effects, once your face is caught in a livestream, it’s out there for good. There’s currently no way to blur people mid-stream, meaning people who show up to support a cause risk having their face broadcast to the world, including to employers and police.
On the other side, livestreaming can also be dangerous for whoever’s behind the camera. While someone who records a video and posts it later can do so anonymously, it’s much more difficult to hide when the video is streaming directly from your account and device. After releasing the video of Eric Garner’s death in 2014, Ramsey Orta claims police harassment drove him to leave his home in Staten Island. Chris LeDay, who helped the recent video of Alton Sterling’s death in Baton Rouge go viral, was arrested the next day for an outstanding traffic ticket in what he believes was police retaliation. While neither of these were livestreams, they reflect the risks of non-anonymous sharing of these kinds of videos.
Additionally, in a world where cameras are already everywhere, from store security to peoples’ pockets, livestreaming may not make much of a difference to cops’ behavior.
“I don’t think [livestreaming] would significantly change the day to day working lives of police officers,” says Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations. “Officers today assume that everything they do is being recorded.”
And in some cases, recorded video is a better way for activists to make a point. For example, in the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina in April 2015, a witness captured a video of an officer shooting Scott in the back as he fled. However, he held on to the clip until after the official story had been announced, allowing people to compare what authorities initially said with the video evidence. This allowed people to point out attempts to skew the facts.
“With all technology, it really comes down to how you use it,” Crawford says. “It can go a great ways to keeping you and other people safe. But without consideration, you can put a lot of people on the line, including yourself.”
Tech companies become the gatekeepers
Within a few hours of Diamond Reynolds’ livestream, the video of Castile’s death had gone viral; to date, the post on Reynolds’ page has 5.7 million views. That doesn’t include the countless views from people on other websites and TV networks around the world.
But the video almost never made it out at all.
About an hour after the livestream ended, Reynolds’ video was removed from Facebook, along with her profile and all shared versions of the clip. It reappeared with a graphic content warning later that night, with Facebook spokespeople claiming the video went down due to a “technical glitch”.
The Internet abounded with accusations of censorship and police involvement. In a press release, Facebook responded, “context and degree are everything”:
Facebook users can flag a video at any time for content they believe violates the website’s policies, including during a livestream. Additionally, public livestreams with a large audience are automatically monitored by Faceboook reviewers, watching in case its content prompts them to cut it off mid-stream. A Facebook spokesperson told Popular Science that just one flag alerts a reviewer, who watches the video and decides if it violates the site’s Community Standards. If the video remains, but is reported again, it is reviewed again; if reports continue, employees eventually make a decision about the video and stop reviewing it. If an explicit or violent video is left up, reviewers can choose to mark it with a graphic content warning, which stops autoplay and prevents viewers under 18 from watching it.
The same spokesperson told Popular Science that based on this protocol, Facebook would not have interrupted Reynolds’ livestream.
Regardless of its official stances, Facebook’s actions prompt bigger questions about how to engage with large media companies when it comes to livestreaming for social justice. Part of this has to do with content policies.
“The key is to be even more transparent on how the processes work for how content stays up, and have a very clear appeals process if something gets taken down or an account gets taken down,” Gregory says. “We need to be proactive in engaging the technology companies that built these platforms.”
Crawford thinks we also need to challenge social media companies to stand up to law enforcement.
“The public trusts these companies not to put them at risk when they use their products,” Crawford says. “If Facebook and Twitter want to be not only transparent and righteous to their customers, but also contribute to making the world a better place, they should be protecting people’s information instead of just giving it away when police ask for it.”
The camera points both ways
Until now, livestreaming has been a way for citizens to catch cops on video, but what if the police started switching to the other side of the camera?
Body camera companies like Taser International hope to begin streaming police patrol footage to the cloud in the next few years. Footage an officer records while walking down a street could be analyzed in real time using facial recognition technology, allowing discreet background checks on everyone that passes. The officer could then be informed of things like outstanding warrants or previous offenses.
“Historically, police departments and government agencies have tried to monitor groups and learn who’s involved if they think the group represents a threat to public safety,” Johnson says. “In general, if you’re out in public it’s OK legally to take a picture. You don’t have an expectation of privacy.”
And technology, he points out, is not as objective an observer as we might expect.
“People’s expectations of technology can be reason for caution in law enforcement,” he says. “Some cameras work better than others. How it perceives things is different from how the human eye perceives things in terms of low-light capability, angle of view, motion. It’s taking one, sometimes fairly narrow view of a rapidly evolving scene.”
The future of livestreaming for justice
The millions of views on Castile’s video make it easy to see the power of livestreaming to draw people into social justice issues. Yet the experience of viewing such a livestream, of being thrown into the middle of a crisis, especially one including graphic violence, is an intense one. As more of these videos crop up, how many people will tune in to a potentially emotionally exhausting feed, and how many will turn away?
“We know that people feel overwhelmed by images of suffering. So we don’t want to perpetuate that problem,” Gregory says. “Because that will mean the next time someone films in a situation of great personal crisis and trauma, there’s less and less chance that people will want to watch it.”
Instead, Gregory hopes to use the intimate nature of livestreaming to bring people into communities impacted by injustice and tell their stories to build a sense of solidarity. He envisions livestreams where people walk viewers through their neighborhoods to get an idea of what they’re like, or bringing livestreams to peaceful rallies to demonstrate the power of non-violent action. And he wants to show people that activism is about more than just the struggles, by inviting people to experience the wins as well.
Imagine being on the scene the moment a better policy is passed or a court case is won, live alongside the families and activists that fought for them. Ultimately, Gregory hopes experiencing that collective celebration can have greater impact than watching a violent video would.
“That’s really what sustains people in long-term movements, is the small victories,” Gregory says. “You have to think about the power of moments of joy.”