How does the violence shared on social media platforms and features — like Facebook Live — affect the perpetrator, the victim and the viewer?
Social media gives everyday citizens the power to shed light on pressing issues that may not initially garner mainstream media attention, whether they involve police brutality or protests against political oppression.
However, these advancements have also led to a disturbing development: more access to violent media. And perpetrators of violence are increasingly making Facebook their platform of choice, raising questions about the psychological stakes for those who both commit and consume acts of violence on such public stages.
In the latest, most high-profile case, Steve Stephens — who took his own life after a brief police chase Tuesday morning — used Facebook’s live recording feature to broadcast the random killing of 74-year-old Robert Godwin, Sr. on Easter Sunday. In the aftermath of the killing, viewers shared the video to other platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
Before Stephens, there have been other cases of killings, torture, and rape broadcast on Facebook Live, leading some to suggest that Facebook discontinue the feature until it determines a process to review and remove such content more efficiently. In the case of Stephens, the Godwin killing lived on the platform for three hours before it was taken down.
It also creates some concerns about the psyche of those who can now produce extreme acts of violence for mass consumption and those who view this media.
Dr. Maat Lewis, an associate professor and former deputy chair and director of counseling services in the Department of Counseling and Human Services at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, shares that those with a desire to commit homicide or suicide often want others to feel their own pain, which may be caused by mental illness or interpersonal conflict, among other factors. While there may not be an increase in homicides and suicides, there is an “exponential increase in access to social media,” Lewis notes, that increases our awareness of such violence.
For those who seek out and share violent content from platforms like Facebook Live, this can lead to desensitization and the dehumanization of victims, Lewis warns.
“We must continue to humanize the lives and tell the stories and background of victims to keep people in touch with the human emotions that come with loss.”
Beyond the technology, which is merely a tool for pre-existing human conditions, Lewis suggests focusing on prevention where possible.
“Sometimes there are signs or a cry for help, where people are creating a warning. For people interpersonally involved in the lives of people who commit these acts, we need to increase awareness of what the signs of homicidal and suicidal ideation are,” she told ESSENCE. “And when people get information about that, they need to let someone know.”
“When someone is suicidal, typically they are ambivalent. Part of them wants to die, part of them wants to live. It is important, then, to intervene. Because you never know what can help that person in their moment of ambivalence in not wanting to take their life.”