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Facebook Live Gets Big Exposure From Tragedies

Millions of people have watched footage of Philando Castile death since it was streamed live on app

Was this the breakout week for Facebook Live?

The streaming app on the social media site became world-famous when the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile was broadcast in real time from a cell phone, with millions of subsequent views. One expert called it a “watershed moment.” That was followed hours later with numerous Facebook Live postings and other cell-phone video as a gunman in Dallas killed five officers at a rally protesting police violence.

For many, it summoned up memories of the Arab Spring of 2010-11, when uprisings in Middle Eastern countries were abetted by Twitter and other social media. Facebook first offered Facebook Live to VIP accounts last year and introduced it to the general public at the start of 2016.

Because of its capacity to make controversial events immediately accessible to millions (and watchable later as well), Facebook Live could, as many activists claim, empower citizens to hold public officials accountable.

But it also has the potential to alter the rules of engagement for journalists already struggling with the effects of other social media.

“Good news is that citizen journalists will provide news organizations and audiences more real-time content than ever before,” Joe Concha, the media reporter for The Hill, told TheWrap. “The quality is quite good, when just a few years ago it would be grainy. Everybody has an HD camera on them now via their phones.”

But this explosion of user-created video creates pitfalls for journalists.

“The bad news is that news organizations will use videos irresponsibly like we saw last night [in Dallas], when an officer’s execution was shown on live TV complete with play-by-play narration,” Concha added.

Robert Thompson, a TV historian and professor at Syracuse University, pointed out that eyewitness video has a long history. The Zapruder film capturing the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy was made by an ordinary bystander, although that footage was not widely seen by the public until years later.

In the early 1990s, the police beating of Rodney King was caught on videotape, setting off a chain of events that ultimately led to riots in Los Angeles.

Facebook Live is the latest wrinkle. “What we’ve got here is the new technologies version of what we used to call an eyewitness,” Thompson said.

The availability of a social-media network, however, gives users a distribution platform they didn’t have before. And that only heightens the burdens for a mainstream media trying to play catch-up.

“They still have a responsibility,” Thompson said, “to vet and contextualize that stuff.”