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Mark Zuckerberg (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Mark Zuckerberg (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

BusinessMarch 26, 2019

Facebook Live is unpopular, unsafe – and untouchable

Mark Zuckerberg (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Mark Zuckerberg (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The product used to broadcast the murder of 50 innocents is one of Facebook’s least popular and least profitable. What makes it so special that it can’t just hit pause?

In the days since a terrorist opened fire in Christchurch, in part motivated by his ability to break new ground in very literally weaponising social media by streaming it on Facebook Live, many have wondered why they just don’t turn it off. While only a few hundred viewed it live, and a few thousand while it remained viewable at source, the video spread from Facebook all over the internet. It has become one of the biggest scandals ever to hit the company, making it indelibly linked with an appalling act of terror.

The anger at the social network is acute among New Zealand’s corporate and advertising community, who, as their spokesperson Lindsay Mouat puts it, “essentially fund Facebook”. He and his equivalent on the ad agency side, Paul Head, released a powerful joint statement yesterday, tellingly addressed to the “global advertising and agency community”. It attempts to create contagion from New Zealand’s big-spending banks and telcos out into the rest of the world’s.

The statement called for a range of measures, up to and including the suspension of advertising, until Facebook takes steps to implement “strict controls to verify safe content and users”. Given that Facebook is nearly entirely funded by advertising, the mere hint of a global boycott should cause huge alarm.

Facebook is in deep here, yet despite a huge effort to deploy human and artificial intelligence to expunge the video from its environments, the core product which was used to spread it remains very much live and operating just as it did before the attacks. Unlike YouTube, which moved swiftly to ban comments on certain videos in the face of advertiser fury earlier this year, Facebook seems determined to weather this storm.

The lack of action is mystifying at first blush. Facebook Live is clearly a backwater for the social media giant. It doesn’t break out revenue sources by product, but it’s clear that across both Facebook and its stablemate Instagram, paying to push posts and embedded video into more feeds are far more lucrative sources of revenue. This is in part because livestreaming is inherently more difficult to directly monetise using an advertising model. Inserting interruptive advertisements largely defeats the purpose of the service, by either delaying it or forcing its audience to miss some of what’s being broadcast.

It’s more curious still because livestreaming is one of the few areas of social media in which Facebook is a relatively minor player. Deloittes estimated 2018 revenue from livestreaming as likely to reach US$7.4bn, yet aside from sports subscriptions the majority of that comes from ‘tipping’, which is most popular in China. The big Chinese streaming platforms like YY, Momo and Yizhibo mostly don’t release revenue numbers, but are likely claiming the largest share of user-generated livestreaming revenue, while Facebook remains very much banned there. The biggest livestreaming platform outside of China is gaming monster Twitch, which is owned by Amazon.

Facebook Live is not just a minor commercial irrelevance – it’s not even particularly important to Facebook’s users. While the 3.5 billion livestreams it saw in the service’s first two years sounds like a large number, YouTube users watch more videos than that every day. The latter service, which itself became a harbour for thousands of copies of the massacre video, also shows that livestreaming is not incompatible with greater safety, with its operating of YouTube Live as an earned privilege for certain users, not an automatic right for all.

The anger at Facebook’s continued inaction on Live is palpable not just among the commercial entities which have made Facebook so profitable, but with Facebook’s users too. Some attempted to organise a boycott of their own last weekend, and New Zealand Privacy Commissioner John Edwards crystallised the fury when he told RNZ “what we haven’t seen and what is of real disappointment to me, is any kind of acceptance of Facebook’s role, any sort of critical self reflection, any contrition, or response.

“I mean, here we are, 10 days after, and you can still livestream, presumably, the same event. Is that service safe? Is it still offered? Why wasn’t it pulled? You know, these are some of the questions you’d expect them to engage with.”

Perhaps the most foreboding comment has come from Jacinda Ardern who in her first address to parliament after the attacks warned that “they are the publisher” of the video – itself a groundbreaking statement, given the safe harbour laws which have always protected it from the responsibilities of traditional publishers. She added that “there cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility”.

To recap, then. Live is one of Facebook’s least successful products. It’s commercially insignificant. It was deployed as a central part of one of the most appalling acts of terror in recent history. And it has united business, users and government in condemnation.

So why, 11 days on from the attacks, is Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s silence more deafening than ever?

Perhaps what’s driving their inaction is not Facebook Live, but another, far more successful product. It seems likely that the thing they’re really protecting is stories: short user-generated video clips which sit atop their mobile apps. The explosively growth of stories has turned Instagram from a photo-sharing app into a video powerhouse. And stories’ episodic nature makes it a perfect advertising product.

The origin of stories is itself a terrible parable of Facebook’s view of the world. The concept was invented and popularised by Snapchat, at one time a rising competitor and immensely popular with teenagers. Facebook has a history of innovating through buying fast-growing rivals, as it did with the US$1bn purchase of Instagram in 2012 and the US$19bn purchase of Whatsapp in 2014. Snapchat was meant to be another in this group, yet its idealistic head Evan Spiegel turned down Zuckerberg’s US$3bn offer in 2013.

Facebook responded by essentially copying wholesale the most successful aspects of Snapchat, hobbling a competitor and creating a juggernaut that has created its first truly supernova video product (Facebook video doesn’t count, mostly because it stands accused of massively inflating its numbers to the point no one really knows what’s real there).

Facebook doesn’t disclose its individual product revenues, but the service is groaning with advertising and recently topped 500m daily active users on Instagram alone.

How is this relevant to Facebook Live? Because stories is functionally near-identical. The kinetic, addictive quality of both watching and posting is due to the fact videos are created with the push of a thumb and uploaded near-instantaneously with a single touch. Making that process as fast and seamless as possible is where all the big brains at Facebook really earn their money. Creating AI which would screen every clip for violence would just slow it down, if not break it, given the amount of first person shooter video game content which exists, and Facebook offered as part of its defence of its slow pace of action on the Christchurch video. Human moderation break both the financial side and the seductive pace of it entirely. 

Most companies with any serious kind of moral compass would surely have cut bait long before now. The cumulative effect of all those scandals – Cambridge Analytica, fake news, allowing companies to read private messages, etc – would have made them withdraw, reflect and fundamentally try and fix these problems. Yet Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, chair and controlling shareholder, is not wired to concede and reform. He has always displayed a brutal winner-takes-all mentality and software engineer’s mindset, one which makes his company view any concession as a kind of bug which makes its entire system vulnerable.

On some level he’s right. To withdraw from Facebook Live and reconsider the implications of stories would be to create a huge opportunity for a competitor, real or imagined. Yet it would also make Facebook a safer and more manageable environment, for both users and advertisers.

He seems to have calculated that it’s worth the cost of waiting it out. Of waiting for some combination of machine learning and AI that can one day detect and delete any form of violence or objectionable material on its way up. In the meantime, his continued silence and intransigence seems to say, we just have to live with the systems we have.

Systems which less than two weeks ago broadcast the murder of 50 innocents. Systems which have not been changed since. Systems which Facebook seems entirely unwilling to change.

Which leads inexorably to the question: if Facebook won’t change its systems, will the collective will of business, politicians and users be enough to change Facebook?

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