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Cleveland Murder Highlights Perils of Video for Facebook

Variety logo Variety 4/17/2017 Cynthia Littleton
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UPDATED: Facebook has once again become caught up in a shocking crime story as a Cleveland man used the social media network as a platform for a video depicting the fatal shooting of a 74-year-old man on Easter Sunday.

Facebook removed several videos and deactivated the account of suspect Steve Stephens, who is the focus of a multi-state manhunt by Cleveland police and the FBI. The video of the killing of Robert Godwin Sr., a retired foundry worker, was reportedly uploaded to Facebook around 2 p.m. ET. The search for Stephens widened overnight to include New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Michigan, according to the Associated Press.

Stephens reportedly went on Facebook Live later and posted another video saying he intended to “keep killing until they catch me.” According to police, Stephens claimed to have committed other killings, but police have yet to find any other victims. Godwin appeared to be a randomly selected target as he was walking down a street in East Cleveland, police said.

The video was up on Facebook for about three hours before it was taken down, according to the Associated Press. Although it is no longer on Facebook, the video believed to run about 30 seconds has spread widely across the Internet via YouTube, Twitter and other sites.

“This is a horrific crime and we do not allow this kind of content on Facebook,” Facebook said in a statement. “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.”

The Stephens case recalls last year’s shooting incident in Norfolk, Va., that was broadcast on Facebook Live by one of three victims. In 2015, a Roanoke, Va., man fatally shot a TV correspondent and her cameraman during a live TV broadcast, and later posted his own video of the incident on Facebook.

Such incidents are increasingly a business challenge for Facebook as it seeks to become a more attractive platform for blue-chip advertisers and as a distributor of high-end video content from top producers. The difficulty of policing violent and otherwise disturbing posts stands in direct conflict with the ethos of Facebook as a platform for unfiltered conversations and commentary from users who tailor their own networks within the platform that now counts more than 1.8 billion users worldwide. Stephens is now being identified as “the Facebook killer” is many TV, print and online news stories about the case.

“There is a real culture of violence that has perpetrated itself inside of video sharing and social media platforms,” Wired editor-in-chief Nicholas Thompson told “CBS This Morning” on Monday. “The decisions that platforms make really do shape the culture and the way people use it. There may have been decisions that Facebook could have made a the beginning or they can make now to limit this kind of behavior.”

Robert Godwin Jr., one of the victim’s nine children, told Cleveland.com he could not bring himself to watch the video of his father’s murder.

“I haven’t watched the video. I haven’t even looked at my cellphone or the news,” Godwin said. “I don’t really want to see it.”

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