Facebook needs to crack down on fake “Live” videos

Was that space walk or climb of a massive antenna tower really shot on Facebook Live? No. Is the point of Facebook Live to show a virtual clock counting down to the new year? No. Yet these are some of the videos that have crookedly taken advantage of the notifications and extra News Feed visibility of Facebook Live posts.

Facebook’s fake news problem isn’t isolated to text articles. Both social media-specific outlets like Interestinate and big name publishers paid by Facebook like BuzzFeed are abusing the Live video format to boost their viewership and score new followers. 5 of the top 10 Facebook Live videos of 2016 were just graphical counters, like countdown clocks and polls.

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A fake “Live” video from November 2016 that was actually recorded in 2015 received at least 6.7 million views. Image via Huffington Post

When asked about fighting abuse of the Live format, Facebook pointed me to a single line in its platform policy that says “Ensure any pre-recorded content is clearly distinguishable from live content.” Facebook also admits it posted but never announced a December 6th update to a March 2016 blog post about videos getting extra visibility in feeds while Live. It says:

We’ve heard feedback from people that they don’t find graphics-only polls to be an interesting type of Live content – for example, “Press Love for peanut butter, Haha for jelly” where the whole stream consists of static or looping graphics or images. Given this feedback we’re now taking steps to reduce the visibility of Live streams that consist entirely of graphics with voting. If you post a Live video with graphics-only polls, it may not show up as high in people’s News Feeds.

Now TechCrunch has learned that Facebook is considering reducing the feed presence of more “Live” videos that aren’t actually live, specifically in an effort to discourage “countdown” videos that don’t use polling but are just a graphic.

But to truly fix the problem, Facebook needs a robust policy about Live and how it will punish offenders.

For a limited time only!

It only took a year for fake Live videos to start becoming a serious problem. In late October 2016, several viral content Facebook Pages, including Viral USA, Interestinate and Unilad, posted an allegedly Live video of a space walk on the International Space station that was actually recorded in 2013. Unilad’s version received more than 19 million views, and was never taken down. That Page now has 23 million followers, showing that fake Live content can help publishers build an audience.

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A few days later, Interestinate was at it again with a Live video purporting to be someone climbing an amazingly tall tower to “replace a lightbulb.” The clip was from a year earlier, and actually showed someone inspecting a digital radio antenna. The 18-minute clip was looped multiple times to make it the max length for Live videos — four hours — giving the stream time to build a bigger and bigger viewership. It received at least 6.7 million views. The clip has since been removed.

These fake videos are clearly designed to dupe the public and rack up views, but there’s also a less well-defined issue of what Facebook Live is supposed to be used for. For example, do Live videos have to use real footage rather than just a computer graphic?

While Facebook Live is often used for monologues, Q&As, citizen journalism, event coverage and entertainment, some publishers are simply rigging graphics to play for the maximum broadcast length of four hours. BuzzFeed scored 11 million views with this “Countdown Until 2016 Is Finally Over.” The four-hour post published five days before the start of 2017 is just a countdown clock over a looping stock graphic of a fire.

While possibly amusing for a moment, it seems far from what Facebook had in mind for Live.

Fighting the living dead

It’s time for Facebook to lay out some clear rules for Live to protect users’ attention and prevent gaming of the feed. Right now, the closest thing Facebook has to a Live policy is that this content must abide by its standard content policies, and this statement buried in the FAQ of the Live API:

Can I add pre-recorded video into a live post?

We encourage all live broadcasts to exclusively contain live content so as to preserve the integrity of a viewer’s experience. However, there are unique cases in which cutting to a pre-recorded clip makes sense, similar to how a news show might show previously recorded content on live TV.

Facebook will need to do more than “encourage” good behavior to keep publishers from abusing Live. It needs to spell out clear policies for what’s allowed and what isn’t, with consequences for accounts that break the rules that go beyond just removing the one offending video.

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Here are some suggestions for these rules:

  • Live broadcasts must start and end live and consist primarily of live content
  • Any recorded content broadcast on Live must include a clearly visible disclaimer of when it was shot
  • Live broadcasts must not contain extended full-screen shots of pre-made graphics
  • Content from a computer screen, such as video game streaming, must be created in real time during the Live broadcast
  • Users should be allowed to report fake Live videos as not being live
  • Facebook should detect fake Live videos by scanning for comments like “not live”
  • Videos that violate these policies will be removed
  • Publishers that post videos that violate these policies will be punished by having their entire Facebook Page’s News Feed visibility decreased, or their ability to broadcast live removed

By formalizing its exact policies and putting the threat of punishment behind them, Facebook can ensure users’ feeds and notifications aren’t clogged with canned content masquerading as Live.

Facebook just hired a Head of News, former TV anchor Campbell Brown, but she’s focused on partnerships not policy. With all the fake text news, censorship decisions, challenges of avoiding bias and the emerging issues posed by new formats, Facebook needs a “Head of News Policy” more than ever.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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