Facebook is facing a backlash over the shooting video, as it grapples with its role in policing content on its global platform.

Share story

SAN FRANCISCO — On Easter, Steve Stephens drove around downtown Cleveland on what he said was a mission to commit murder — and soon he had an audience of millions for his shooting of Robert Godwin Sr., 74, which he recorded and posted on Facebook, police in Cleveland said.

On Monday, the authorities nationwide were looking for Stephens, 37, with the police as far away as Philadelphia saying they had received calls about sightings of him in that area. Officials acknowledged that they did not know where the man was and announced a $50,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.

Now Facebook is facing a backlash over the shooting video, as it grapples with its role in policing content on its global platform.

It is an issue that Facebook, the world’s largest social network, has had to contend with more frequently as it has bet big on new forms of media like live video, which give it a venue for more lucrative advertising.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The criticism of Facebook over Stephens’ video built swiftly Monday, with critics calling it a dark time for the company and social-media outrage over how long it had taken — more than two hours — for the video to be pulled down. Ryan Godwin, the victim’s grandson, pleaded with other users on social media to stop sharing the video online.

The situation is increasingly fraught for Facebook. Even as it has become a forum for more sensational events, live and otherwise, it has said it does not want to be a media company that overly arbitrates what is posted on its site. But the more reluctant it is to intervene or the slower it is to respond, the more it may open itself to the posting of killings, sexual assaults and other crimes.

“Any of these platforms — especially live ones — encourages users to perform,” said Elizabeth Joh, a law professor at the University of California, Davis. “Should Facebook have a duty to rescue a crime victim? Should we, or is it OK for thousands or millions of people to watch a crime unfold without doing anything except sharing it?”

Justin Osofsky, a vice president of Facebook, said in a public post late Monday that the company knows “we need to do better” to stop videos like that of the shooting from appearing. He said the company is working to ensure that such content and reports of it can be flagged faster, including through the use of artificial intelligence and a better review process.

“It was a horrific crime — one that has no place on Facebook, and goes against our policies and everything we stand for,” Osofsky wrote.

Facebook’s dilemma is part of a debate that has pulled in other technology giants including Twitter, Amazon and Google. As these companies have rushed to provide tools for people to widely share their intimate moments more frequently, they are dealing with a rising tide of calls to more proactively filter the type of content that appears.

In recent weeks, Google’s YouTube has been scrutinized for posting advertising next to racist video content, while Twitter contends with hate speech almost daily.

But the attention is often focused on Facebook because of its nearly 2 billion users and global influence. It is an issue that is bedeviling Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive. Facebook has encouraged users to post more — it has spent the past two years emphasizing its push into photographs and video, underpinned by a thesis that cameras have become more important in how people share moments of their lives with their friends.

The company has not been prepared for the consequences of that push. Last summer, the death of Philando Castile, a Minnesota man shot by the police during a traffic stop, was broadcast by his girlfriend live across Facebook.

In January, three men in Sweden were arrested on suspicion of raping a woman and streaming the assault live to a private Facebook group. In February, two radio journalists in the Dominican Republic were fatally shot during a Facebook Live broadcast.

Some groups have pressured Facebook to take a stronger role in reviewing content posted on its platform. In a letter this year to Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s director of global policy, the American Civil Liberties Union called for the social network to be more transparent in its censorship process and agree to an external audit of its practices.

The problems have been compounded by the issue of fake news — false stories across the social network that some Facebook users have taken as true and that may have swayed thinking in events such as elections. Zuckerberg has had to address the fake-news problem several times in recent months, including working more closely with fact-checking organizations and initiating efforts to teach Facebook users how to discern what is or is not a real news story.

Yet monitoring the content is imperfect. Because Facebook’s network of users is so vast, the company relies on a combination of artificial intelligence, human moderators and alerts from users to flag objectionable content. If many people report an instance of offensive or harmful content at once, Facebook’s algorithms will show the post to a global team of human content moderators, who will review it and decide if it violates Facebook’s terms of service.

This approach has difficulties. In some instances, moderators can make unpopular decisions about what content should or should not be allowed. Last year, a Facebook moderator took down an iconic, Pulitzer Prize-winning photo from the Vietnam War depicting a naked girl running from a napalm strike. After criticism, Facebook restored the photo.

“The more users are posting every aspect of their lives online, including criminally heinous conduct, the more companies have to take a proactive approach to content moderation rather than relying just on users to flag content for review,” said Hemanshu Nigam, founder of SSP Blue, an advisory company for online safety, security and privacy.

“Facebook does, however, work well with law enforcement as is clear from the ongoing investigation and their active support in it,” he said.

Police in Philadelphia said that they had received multiple reports of unconfirmed sightings of Stephens at the Belmont Plateau park area in the western part of the city. In a statement on Monday afternoon, however, they said that so far, there was “no indication” that the suspect had actually been there, though they had locked down nearby schools as a precaution.

Chief Calvin Williams of the Cleveland Police Department said on Monday that authorities had searched “every location” where Stephens has resided, as well as places where his family members live. They have recovered items, including weapons, and “other things that are pertinent to the investigation,” he said, without specifying to whom those items belonged.

“I think we can say without a doubt, he’s armed,” Williams said. “Steve, if you’re out there listening, call someone.”

Stephens’ video on Facebook, which lasts about a minute, shows a driver pulling up to an older man on a sidewalk. The driver asks the man to say a person’s name, then pulls out a gun and shoots the man. Afterward, the victim can be seen on the sidewalk, with a streak of what appears to be blood near his head.

The police originally said that Stephens had broadcast the shooting on Facebook Live, but Facebook said that while he had posted a live video at some point Sunday, the shooting itself was not live. By late Sunday afternoon, the video had been removed from Facebook and the account had been deactivated.

In a second video that was posted on Facebook, Stephens explained his actions by saying, “I’m at the point where I snapped.”

He blamed his mother and Joy Lane, a former girlfriend, for his actions. Lane said in a statement that she was sorry “that all of this has happened,” television station Cleveland19 reported.

A warrant was been issued for Stephens on a charge of aggravated murder, and the police asked residents of Indiana, Michigan, New York, northeast Ohio and Pennsylvania to be on alert.