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Why suppressing violent videos is a constant problem for tech companies


The racist mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket was streamed live online. In about 2 minutes, it was taken down. But then it started reappearing all over the internet. Suppressing violent footage is a constant problem for tech companies. And NPR's Bobby Allyn has been looking into this and joins us.

Good morning, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Take us through - as horrific as it is - how exactly the Buffalo gunman used social media.

ALLYN: Sure. Well, he attached a GoPro camera to a military-style helmet that he wore and began livestreaming as he drove into the parking lot of the grocery store where he would kill 10 people. He used a video streaming service called Twitch. It's owned by Amazon, and it's really big with gamers. And as you mentioned, Twitch did act fast. The company says it removed the stream in less than 2 minutes after the violence started. But that's when the real trouble began, right?

It started, you know, just spreading across the internet like wildfire. People were able to save copies of it. On one site called Streamable, the footage was viewed more than 3 million times before it was taken down. And Facebook, Twitter and other social sites rushed to block the video, but some links just managed to get through.

MARTIN: I mean, this sounds horrifyingly familiar, though. Well, you remember the shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019 also livestreamed his attack. Others have done the same. So why? I mean, aren't social media companies learning from these?

ALLYN: Look, there's been progress. But experts say there's just no perfect solution here. After the Christchurch shooting, countries and social platforms banded together and created a shared database of violent material that would make it easier to block something like this. Now, Saturday put that system to the test. And it's hard to know for sure how effective it was. But we do know it was not flawless because versions of the shooter's video kept popping up on Twitter and Facebook.

Now, I will say Twitch pulling the livestream down in 2 minutes was remarkable. Past mass shooters who have livestreamed on Twitch have gone more than 30 minutes before the company acted. So their swift action here was indeed applauded, but the speed at which it replicated was just so hard to control.

MARTIN: New York's governor, Kathy Hochul, is saying that social media companies actually share some responsibility in the massacre that happened in Buffalo. I want to play a bit of tape. This is her addressing reporters on Saturday.


KATHY HOCHUL: The social media platforms that profit from their existence need to be responsible for monitoring and having surveillance, knowing that they can be, in a sense, an accomplice to a crime like this, perhaps not legally, but morally.

MARTIN: What do you make of that, Bobby?

ALLYN: Yeah. There's a few ways to think about it. I mean, in legal terms, online platforms are usually off the hook, right? In most cases, a social media site cannot be sued for hosting comments, or in this case, a video someone posts. But morally, you know, as we heard from the governor there, it's a different debate, right?

For a long time, social media companies took a kind of hands-off approach to policing content. And now more than ever, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites are seriously trying to tackle the societal problems the sites create. All the companies have thousands of content moderators and other systems in place to automatically block violent stuff from ever finding an audience. But the companies have more work to do.

I mean, Twitch could make it more difficult to livestream. Right now it's one of the only major video streaming sites that lets you open an account and instantly start livestreaming. Other platforms like TikTok and YouTube require a certain number of followers before being able to go live. And some experts say maybe Twitch should do the same.

MARTIN: NPR's Bobby Allyn. Bobby, we appreciate your reporting on this. Thank you.

ALLYN: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.