He livestreamed a killing, Meta deleted video but duplicates spread
BATON ROUGE (THE STAR) - One of the videos was viewed 16,000 times and shared 191 more. Another logged 56,000 views and 2,300 shares.
There were at least 10, all showing Janice David being stabbed to death on April 18.
A few hours before the clips appeared on Facebook, the Baton Rouge Police Department announced they arrested Earl Lee Johnson Jr, 35, for stabbing Ms David in a car after a day's long drug binge and leaving her for dead in a "gruesome, evil" daytime attack — much of which Johnson streamed on Instagram.
The killing was broadcast live on the app for some 15 minutes, BRPD spokesman Sergeant L'Jean McKneely said.
Social media companies have faced growing criticism from Congress in recent years for the way they handle hate speech and violence on their platforms.
Examples range from the more mundane, like Instagram content deemed too "sensitive" for children, to the horrific, like a wide-scale propaganda campaign that fuelled genocide in Myanmar.
In the same period, the companies have bet big on live video — a feature that's yielded dozens of cases where people broadcast acts of violence to followers in real time.
Meta, the parent company for Facebook and Instagram, took down the original video of Ms David's death after a user reported it, and disabled the account that streamed it. The company also "hashed" the original footage, meaning it made a "digital fingerprint" of the video to stop duplicates from being shared on its platforms, Meta spokeswoman Stephanie Otway said.
Ms Otway said Meta was "deeply saddened by the murder that took place in Baton Rouge, and our thoughts are with the victim and her family".
But despite Meta's efforts to stop the footage from circulating, clips of the video reposted by other users remained on Facebook for at least 24 hours after Johnson's arrest. They ranged in length from 23 seconds to nearly two minutes.
Some focused on a person who appears to be Johnson and blurred over Ms David. Others showed, in graphic detail, Johnson striking Ms David as she lay slumped in the car's front seat, her hands bound and arms bloodied.
Questions facing tech companies about how to regulate live-streamed video are relatively new and legitimately complicated, said Dr Hany Farid, a University of California, Berkeley, professor who researches digital forensics and misinformation.
But for copies of the video to spread on Meta's sites for more than a day after Johnson's arrest is "pathetic," Dr Farid said. He added that allowing such videos to spread can traumatise family of the deceased.
That the footage kept proliferating for hours after Ms Otway told reporters that Meta "hashed" the video, according to Dr Farid, suggested the company's hashing algorithms weren't strong enough to account for small variations in duplicates of the footage — things like changes in colour or frame size.
Hashing technology is neither new nor particularly complicated. Social media companies just haven't adequately invested in it, according to Dr Farid.
"There is zero reason for that video to be recirculated," he insisted.
Ms Otway did not respond to an email seeking further comment. Several posts containing the video appeared to have been deleted Wednesday. Others remained online, including a screen-recording of the original video that racked up 135,000 views.
Live broadcasts of violence are hardly unprecedented and just about date back to the advent of the technology.
In August 2015, a reporter fired from a TV station in Virginia shot and killed two former colleagues on live television and uploaded video of the attack to his Facebook page. The video was later removed.
In the 2019 mass shooting of worshippers at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, shooter Brenton Tarrant streamed parts of the attack on Facebook Live. The video and Tarrant's manifesto were banned in New Zealand, and some people have been prosecuted for possessing and reproducing them.
Dr. N.G. Berrill, a forensic psychologist who specialises in evaluating violent individuals, called the decision to film oneself killing an act of "perverse exhibitionism".
If Johnson was intoxicated at the time of the alleged attack — he told detectives he was on meth and heroin, Sergeant McKneely said, but a toxicology report is pending — his choice to turn on the camera likely stemmed from a sense of "unreality" induced by the drugs, according to Berrill.
"But you have to be of a certain mindset, even if you're high, to do this," Berrill said. Traits like psychosis or a sadistic personality are some factors that could drive a person to film themselves in an act of extreme violence, he said.
Police said Meta received a user report of the video, which the company then passed on to investigators.
The question of how many people reported the video to Meta is an important one, Berrill said, because it "shows how many people were moved to lift a finger to alert the authorities."
"And if they weren't moved, the question then becomes... whether it speaks to a level of apathy, a level of inability to care enough or be shocked enough or concerned enough to intervene remotely," he said.
Asked in an email how many users reported the video, Ms Otway did not respond.
How Johnson and Ms David knew each other was not immediately clear. He had already been booked and was in custody on a stolen car complaint Monday when police learned of the killing, Sergeant McKneely said.
The duplicated videos still online Wednesday evening showed that as Ms David died on camera, user comments trickled in one-by-one.
"Bruh (expletive)," one person commented on the live video.
Someone else asked, "why on live ??"
"Bruh, no," another implored.
Someone else asked the person filming to turn off the live feed but didn't tell him to stop attacking Ms David.
At another point, a message from Instagram flitted onto the screen.
"Share this live video with others," it said, "so they can watch too."
A judge ruled Wednesday that Johnson should be held without bail.