By Melvin Taylor, Staff Writer
On Easter Sunday, Steve Stephens, 37, murdered Robert Godwin Sr., 74, and uploaded a live recording of the murder to Facebook. Before this, Stephens went on Facebook Live explaining that he was going to murder people because he was angry with his ex-girlfriend, Joy Lane, and his mother, Maggie Green. Stephens also claimed to have murdered 13 other people, but the murders were never confirmed. The videos of Stephens’s crime quickly attracted thousands of viewers and media outlets closely tracked the nearly 2-day ensuing police pursuit. The chase came to an end when a Pennsylvania McDonald’s worker withheld Stephens’ food and called police after recognizing him. Stephens became impatient and drove off, but the police were already on his trail. Stephens pulled over his car and committed suicide.
The role of Facebook, the website where Stephens uploaded video of the murder,in this situation has become a matter of debate. The video of Godwin’s death was on its site for three hours and had been shared on many other social media sites.
It is odd to blame Facebook for the material put on their site, as many have done. It is true that allowing the video to stay on Facebook is disrespectful to Godwin’s family—but I would argue that the raw footage of the death and Stephens’ rants are what kept people informed about the case. I first learned about this situation after viewing the video of Stephens talking to his friend on the phone. It took a while for the media to cover the topic. In fact, I learned more from social media than the news media itself. Things only became more serious for the news media when the chase for Stephens was heading into its second day.
Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and other social media applications have features which allow users to “live stream” video content. These features have been used to publicize the live deaths of many other victims. In one instance, Katelyn Nicole Davis, 12, hanged herself on Facebook Live. Malachi Hemphill, 13, accidentally shot himself while livestreaming on Instagram. A man with special needs was kidnapped and tortured on Facebook Live. Occurrences like this are becoming increasingly common. I attribute this to the relative ease with which people can use social media. Facebook and YouTube upload live videos shortly after the livestream ends. If a user wants to send a message to the world, it can be quickly uploaded, downloaded, shared,and reuploaded.
As gruesome and scary as the recent videos were, I think they helped to identify Stephens and led to a faster resolution. If Stephens had not posted those videos, it would have taken a while to even figure out who had murdered Godwin. The media and many of us found out about Stephens because of those videos. After removing the video and Stephens’ account, Facebook released a statement that said, “This is a horrific crime and we do not allow this kind of content on Facebook. We work hard to keep a safe environment on Facebook and are in touch with law enforcement in emergencies when there are direct threats to physical safety.” If Facebook had taken the videos down quickly, I do not think Stephens would have been found. The McDonald’s worker who identified Stephens was able to do so, in part, because of the case’s publicity. The worker could have only learned about his appearance from the online videos or the news. The news got their information from the videos. Whether I like it or not, these videos are a central part in this case.
In the cases of Stephens and the Facebook live torture, those videos led to the perpetrators being found. The only way to stop these Facebook murders and suicides is to get rid of the live feature or monitor users’ activity heavily. I disagree with both of these actions. This would be to let a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch. Facebook has had positive uses for its live feature such as classic TV shows being streamed, fun video challenges, and waiting on April the Giraffe to give birth. Besides, getting rid of live streaming will just push people to find another way to upload horrific content. Monitoring users heavily is an issue because things may eventually get to the point where everything is censored at the sacrifice of privacy. Facebook could check content before it is allowed to go live, but I think that would discourage people from using the feature.