Learn more below
Michael Dolen was live on Twitch while playing a video game, then he got swatted.
One early morning in August 2014, Michael Dolen was livestreaming on Twitch and playing Minecraft while his wife and children were sleeping in their Bradenton home. While viewers were watching him play, the Bradenton Police Department knocked down Dolen’s front door and rushed into the room he was in, responding to a fake 911 call saying Dolen shot his wife.
Later that same week, the police cleared Dolen’s neighborhood after someone reported a bomb in his home while he was livestreaming. This is a phenomenon called swatting - a dangerous activity where a person or group of people make a hoax emergency call so vivid that the police decide to send in the SWAT team to control the situation, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars (Enzweiler, 2015).
Dolen and his family were unharmed in both incidents; however, swatting can be fatal. This was true when police killed Andrew Finch after someone gave the police the wrong address during a swatting prank. According to the FBI, this “prank” puts the lives of officers at risk as well, noting a police officer who was injured in an accident responding to one of these hoax calls.
Laura-Kate Bernstein (2017) points out that “swatters are often savvy cybercriminals who go to great lengths to protect their identities." This makes this crime hard to prosecute and tempting to replicate. When livestreaming platforms allow this crime to play in full more people are exposed to the “entertainment” value of swatting. Do companies like Twitch, YouTube Gaming and Facebook Live share the blame for continuing this crime?
What's being done to help these issues?
Protecting Free Speech
In the 1990s, the U.S. government made two big decisions that allowed the internet to grow to what it is today: Reno v. ACLU and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. In Reno v. ACLU, the Supreme Court decided that speech on the internet should receive the most First Amendment protection like newspapers, meaning the government is limited to how it can regulate speech on the internet. Some speech - like defamation, true threats and obscenity - are not protected.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act helps the Justice department decide who is to blame for illegal speech and actions on the internet. Livestreaming sites like Periscope, Facebook and Live.me are considered Internet Service Providers, which means they receive immunity from content made by their users. Because of this, if someone were to threaten to SWAT a streamer while they were live on Twitch, the streamer cannot sue Twitch if the action actually took place. According to Clay Calvert, the director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project, it’s up to social media companies to set the rules for speech on their websites.
The First Amendment protects our speech from the government, but websites like Facebook and Twitter are private companies who can set community standards and conditions for how their services are used.
Facebook and Twitter’s terms and conditions take a hard stance on graphic violence, adult content and publicizing crime. Facebook mentions specifically that it doesn’t allow this because it can cause copycat actions. It relies on people reporting such behavior so it can make a decision on if the content is permissible.
As of May 2017, Facebook has 7,500 employees worldwide dedicated to screening content for illegal or violent activity - like rapes, murders or suicides. These employees then work with appropriate law enforcement or community groups to provide help.
Facebook announced, however, it would sometimes leave content up if it serves a purpose or it can provide an opportunity for provide help. This decision saved the lives of a teenage girl in Ohio and a man in Bangkok when viewers contacted the police while watching their livestreamed suicide attempts. Additionally, videos like the Philando Castile shooting provide important commentary on our society, so social media websites have decided to leave up these livestreamed videos to keep people informed.
Social media companies are taking the steps to make their websites safe and helpful to users, but it is up to us to use these websites responsibly if we want livestreams to be used correctly. See how you can start the conversation.