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Zuckerberg: We're responsible for halting violent content on Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg
Photo by Bloomberg
Mark Zuckerberg

Videos of violent crimes such as Sunday's killing of a 74-year-old grandfather in Cleveland have no place on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg told USA TODAY.

"We have a responsibility to continue to get better at making sure we are not a tool for spreading" video of violent acts, Zuckerberg said in an interview last week at the company's Silicon Valley headquarters, before Steve Stephens, 37, uploaded a video to Facebook with the title "Easter day slaughter." The video shows an elderly man, Robert Godwin, Sr., being shot at close range while walking home from dinner with his family.

The Facebook CEO was referring to incidents in which people commit violent crimes and post them on the giant social network and, with growing frequency, who stream them live on Facebook Live.

"Those are all against our community standards. They don't belong there," Zuckerberg told USA TODAY.

The Stephens video footage has once again raised questions about Facebook's effectiveness at moderating disturbing content. Facebook prohibits content that glorifies promotes violence, only permitting violent content that is considered to be in the public interest.

Humans and AI

The social media giant deploys teams of content moderators who are trained to remove content that violates the company's policies. It has also begun to use artificial intelligence software to detect prohibited content.

At Facebook's annual conference for software developers on Tuesday, Zuckerberg addressed Godwin's killing. "We will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like from happening," he said.

Facebook is within a few years of being able to reduce the amount of violent content on Facebook with the help of artificial intelligence that can detect what's happening in a video, Zuckerberg told USA TODAY last week.

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"In the near term, the system we have is based on people reporting it and us going through and reviewing the reports. There are some things that I think we can speed up there. But the long-term solution is going to be having better artificial intelligence tools to give context of what's going on," Zuckerberg said. "That won't be this year, but I also don't think that's 10 years from now. I do think over a few-year period, this will get better."

In a nearly 6,000-word manifesto two months ago, Zuckerberg, said artificial intelligence was beginning to prove effective at flagging problems on Facebook, generating about one-third of all reports to the team that reviews content. It's unclear if artificial intelligence played a role in flagging the Stephens footage.

Public scrutiny of disturbing content on Facebook has surged as live streaming, both on Facebook and on Twitter's live-streaming platform Periscope, has given terrorists and criminals a powerful tool to reach a very large audience. Mental health experts warn these live streams risk desensitizing the public and encouraging copycats.

A nationwide manhunt was underway for Stephens, 37, who fatally shot himself Tuesday in Pennsylvania. Police originally said Stephens broadcast the shooting on live-streaming service Facebook Live, but in fact he posted the video footage on Facebook. Facebook eventually removed the videos and deactivated his account, but not before the video had been viewed millions of times and posted elsewhere. The victim's grandson, Ryan Godwin, begged people to stop sharing the video footage, writing on Twitter: "That is my grandfather show some respect."

Justin Osofsky, vice president of global operations and media partnerships at Facebook, said the company would review its processes to make sure "people can report videos and other material that violates our standards as easily and quickly as possible."

Osofsky said Facebook disabled Stephens' account within 23 minutes of receiving the first report about the murder video and two hours after receiving a report of any kind. "But we know we need to do better," he said in a blog post.

Facebook opened up its Live feature to the public last year as the company pushes to be "video first." It has been coaxing its nearly 2 billion users to try out the feature, rolling out an advertising campaign and featuring live streams in users' news feeds. It also launched a new video tab and it's paying content creators tens of millions to produce live video. Facebook is reportedly considering launching TV-like programming through licensing deals with media companies.