A random act of senseless violence stunned the United States April 16: In a video posted to Facebook, a man driving through the Cleveland area sees a pedestrian, stops the car, announces his intention to kill, walks over to the victim and shoots him. The victim, 74-year-old Robert Godwin, was on his way home from an Easter meal with his children. The murderer is at large at the time of this writing.
Often, murders cause the public to meditate on human nature, mental illness, the justice system and various other topics; this one also caused users of social media to meditate on the ramifications of seeing so many aspects of people's lives broadcast to the world. Inevitably, some of those moments will be things we don't want to see.
For Facebook, it's a crisis that comes on the eve of F8, its annual developer conference that traditionally is a bellwether for the platform's direction. At F8 2016, Zuckerberg and company continued to increase emphasis on video, especially live video. The Cleveland tragedy casts a pall over that branch of expansion, to say the least.
Interestingly, Facebook has been reaching out to news outlets to correct the record about the video of the murder: It was not a Facebook Live video, as police initially said and as many had been reporting, but rather a non-live video that was uploaded after the fact. What difference this makes in the face of such a horrific act is something of a head-scratcher. Perhaps Facebook simply wants to be transparent with all the facts; perhaps its PR department also has an interest in not propagating the idea that a user may at some point log on and see a murder committed live, even though this clearly is a possibility.
The company also said in a statement, “This is a horrific crime and we do not allow this kind of content on Facebook. We work hard to keep a safe environment on Facebook, and are in touch with law enforcement in emergencies when there are direct threats to physical safety.”
Facebook has always enjoyed promoting itself in utopian terms: connectedness, intimacy, communication, happiness. It's unlikely that the murder of Robert Godwin will cause many people to abandon the platform, but as with harassment on Twitter and inappropriate pictures on Snapchat, those users will increasingly see the benefits of social media as fundamentally linked with tragedies both mild and terrible, a dark and disturbing lining around a silver cloud.