How can we trust Facebook “Live”?

Tune in to the Facebook Live map and you’ll find people across the globe doing stuff on camera. Funny stuff. Informative stuff. Frankly strange stuff. Some videos record jaunty outings, others speeches, or hairbrush-as-a-microphone karaoke. It’s this weird and wonderful, homemade and rustic style which ultimately convinces us, the viewer, that what we are watching is live. Whether it’s broadcast from the Facebook user’s car, bedroom, or gig, we can assume the “little people” (who are not claiming to be affiliated with any organisation) are keeping it real. The shaky footage, the selfie camera angle, and the bad lighting all contribute to the sense of abject un-professionalism, which is known as “idiots doing stuff on camera” (a technical term.)

So far, so trustworthy. In the past few months, Facebook Live has exploded. Literally, if you count Buzzfeed’s rubber bands + watermelon experiment (see the full video here). High-profile news organisations like the Wall Street Journal, Buzzfeed and BBC news, as well as cultural institutions like the Tate, Metropolitan Museum of art and so on, have all taken to Facebook Live. The result: a spate of (mostly) polished “live” videos popping up all over our news feeds. Unlike live television, these are usually not filmed in a studio, there are fewer time restrictions, and we don’t need a familiar faced TV anchor to guide us through the process. Facebook Live video gives organisations freedom to broadcast with an audience of one billion people (this is how many are active on Facebook every month) ready and waiting. This far transcends any audience even the BBC’s TV giant Strictly Come Dancing could offer.

Unfortunately, though not for the broadcaster, this ready and waiting audience is extremely accepting of whatever is said to be “live”. The nature of Facebook as a social media platform is that most people tend not to question the truth of what they are viewing, preferring to just share, react, and ultimately enjoy the content. Which explains the latest incidents of Facebook “live” duping users. BBC News recently reported on a USA Viral video which purported to show live light bulb changing on a 1,999 ft “TOWER!” (It was actually an 18 minute pre-recorded clip on a four hour loop). Of course, it’s unlikely that any Facebook user would have tuned in for more than 18 minutes, so it’s little wonder that no one noticed while marvelling at the spectacular scene. It was not even a recent video, filmed over a year ago. Despite this, it got six million views.

So what? It was a great video.

Yes, but Facebook users were taken advantage of, manipulated into believing something that was not true for the benefit of publicity. The backlash journalists face when reporting something untrue — whether intentionally or otherwise — usually includes a good public flogging best case scenario, or worst case scenario, being taken to court. The ease of deception when it comes to Facebook video makes it harder for secondary organisations to verify their sources — did someone actually explode a watermelon on 8 April 2016, or was it on 5 June 2015, and was the exploder who they claim to be?

In other news (or perhaps it’s not news) Unilad, the social media sensation which targets the young, male market, did a “Space from the International Space Station!” live video. It gathered 19 million views and nearly a million reactions. While some shrewd viewers noticed NASA had not even scheduled a spacewalk that day, the majority were wowed. This time, the footage was from 2013. Unilad told the BBC it posted the video to “test the capabilities of what the ‘live broadcast’ feature on Facebook could really do”. Hmm. Sounds like a cop-out. The real reason was probably something more like: “to test the naivety of our viewers and see what we could get away with to get more likes and shares.”

While the world of journalistic broadcasting is placed under severe restrictions when it comes to verifying sources, organisations like Unilad appear to get away with fake stories because they become extremely popular. As Facebook Live is still in its early days, teething problems are to be expected. But should organisations who dupe their loyal viewers face more serious consequences than a slap on the wrist from the BBC? Facebook is yet to outline proper rules and regulations of its “Live” tool. On the other hand, why would it? False information is shared across Facebook every day, from long statuses claiming that cinnamon cures all diseases to “share this post to beat breast cancer” posts. Unfortunately, while there is still the demand for populist, un-verified information, organisations on Facebook will not have to authenticate their content. For their audience, it’s much easier just to click like and move on than scrutinise the legitimacy of what they are seeing. Perhaps, as Facebook users, we are the ones who need to be more astute.