Image 20160720 8005 10tuvlh

Death on smartphones: in a world of live streamed tragedy, what do we gain?

The death in Nice on Bastille Day was live streamed in sickening detail.

Death on smartphones: in a world of live streamed tragedy, what do we gain?

The death in Nice on Bastille Day was live streamed in sickening detail.

The videos in this article contain graphic violence that may be disturbing to some viewers.


A series of horrendous global events in the past few weeks have highlighted the use of Facebook Live to stream footage via smart phones, as they unfold.

For the 1.5 billion Facebook subscribers, and other users on live streaming services Periscope and Meerkat, these video streams are the first drafts of history.

Diamond Reynolds’ live stream of the July 6 death of her partner, Philando Castile, who was shot by police in Baton Rouge, was dramatic, emotional and unequivocal.

It was followed, just days later, by images streamed live by Michael Bautista of the revenge attack on police at a Black Lives Matter rally Dallas, just metres from Dealey Plaza where Abraham Zapruder recorded the most famous 8 mm film footage ever shot.

Meanwhile, US Late Show host Stephen Colbert used a live stream of his hijacking of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland to mock Donald Trump.

The Black Lives Matter movement, created in 2012, has welcomed live streaming as a way of providing proof that police target black people in the USA. But what of Antonio Perkins, who in June accidentally live streamed his own murder in a park in Chicago?

Are some of these moments too intimate to invite the world to share? How would you feel if your last moments on earth – all your “priceless things” – became what Irish poet WB Yeats called “but a post the passing dogs defile”?

Is watching these unmediated moments mere voyeurism? Or is there something to be learned from them? Security specialist Gavin de Becker argued in the Gift of Fear (1997):

We watch attentively because our survival requires us to to learn about things that may hurt us. That’s why we slow down at the scene of a terrible car accident. It isn’t out of some unnatural perversion; it is to to learn.

Most times, we draw a lesson: ‘He was probably drunk;’ ‘They must have tried to pass;’ ‘Those little sports-cars are sure dangerous;’ ‘That intersection is blind.’ Our theory is stored away, perhaps to save our lives another day.

But, sometimes, little is to be learned. The live streams from Nice show little of the carnage, but do say running for your life and filming doesn’t work.

The live streaming of events on smartphones does not just throw up one more challenge to traditional journalism: it may also change the way a significant minority of the world’s population understands the substantial issues of the day.

Live streaming may even help break down the division between the information-rich first world, and the information-poor third world. But it may also see social media become even more awash with trash and trivia.

This information overload may encourage the resurgence of traditional journalism, with journalists employing their expertise as filters and fact-checkers. (Mind you, filtering live stream footage is labour and cost intensive.) This would, one hopes, see the role of the journalist return to that of a crap-trap and a seeker of truth in a world beset by a blizzard of information.

The availability of live video streams has the potential to undermine the traditional roles of journalism. Breaking stories, being rushed to air by competitive media organisations, are particularly prone to errors.

The first reports from the Dallas police shootings had up to five snipers: there was just a lone gunman. In Nice, confusion abounded for some hours on the scope of the massacre, the number of persons in the murder truck and gunfire from the truck. The live streams gave us few clues, giving only a sense of immediacy rather than insight to the reports.

While live streaming may better inform the public, it also has the potential to entrench prejudices among the viewers. Selective viewing and rejection of contrary viewpoints could see the atomisation of audiences become a wider reality.

Communities that no longer share common values and understandings about the functioning of society are communities ready for schism and destruction

The next half decade will see these issues around live streaming played out in our media as its real social use is assessed.

At its best, live streaming can extend the understanding of events, indeed, even instil more compassion in our community for the woes of others.

At its worst, it may not just weaken journalism but contribute to the dissolution of the social contract.