Local News

Social media hosts clues to real-life violence, but sites slow to react

Posted May 23
Updated May 25

Posting about real-life violence on social media has become a problem on some popular sites, but leaked documents published recently by news outlets shows one site is slow to respond.

Newly obtained internal documents at Facebook show a selective and slow-to-act screening process. The Guardian, a British newspaper, obtained the leaked documents that show how the social media company decides what to screen

In less than a month, there have been at least two such incidents in the Triangle area on sites such as Instagram and Facebook.

One short Facebook post that would change the life of Robert Owens' family forever: "In the end, it turns out that I'm not that strong ..."

Owens' wife, who was too emotional to talk to WRAL News, saidher husband killed himself within five minutes of posting to the social media site

Hours before Owens' post, crime scene tape surrounded a Durham home after an attempted murder-suicide, which was also forecast on social media.

In a long post about relationship problems, Torrey Price wrote, "See you all next lifetime. Oh she's coming with me too."

The victim, Kartrina Wright, a mother of two, died four days later from her wounds.

Price and Owens join a growing list of Facebook users from all walks of life who use the site to foretell violence upon themselves or others. The most shocking cases involved murder, assault or suicide committed while broadcasting on Facebook Live.

"We almost have to take the fact that it's happening on social media out of the equation," said Duke University professor of public policy Philip Napoli. "Think of it as this is real life, this is happening and something needs to be done about it."

Napoli studies media regulation and policy, and he said the disturbing trend emphasizes why we should develop social awareness and treat online communities as a real communities.

"If you see something that looks like a potential danger to an individual, to others or to themselves, the socially responsible way to be an online citizen is to act," Napoli said.

Napoli said social media users should:

Reach out to the person directly, not by commenting on the post or by sharing, if they have a concerning post. Napoli said the personal contact shows you truly care about them.

"To me, it extends to our broader need to be compassionate and aware and willing to do something," Napoli said.

If you don't feel close enough to the person, contact a close friend or police immediately.

Facebook's internal process is slow and selective because the site has to first identify explicit posts before screening them, according to the documents published by The Guardian.

The slow reaction time leaves the responsibility up to users to be observant and not to judge people's words based on what you think you know about their lives, Napoli said.

"Just go with what you see because there's not much time to investigate otherwise before something bad might happen," Napoli said.

It's unclear how reaching out to Owens or Price might have changed the outcome, but Napoli said the harm in not speaking up is too great.


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