Earlier this summer, Twitter rolled out what seemed to be an impressive new feature: videos that automatically played when a user scrolled over them. In the world of breakneck Tweets and automated post scheduling on platforms like Facebook, why ask social media users to do something as laborious as click to launch a video? Twitter solved the cumbersome problem with autoplay.
Flash forward to this week’s gruesome on-air shooting of two broadcast journalists in Virginia by Bryce Williams, a/k/a Vester Flanagan. Like many terrorists, both domestic and international, Flanagan opted to spread the horrific footage of his crime on social media, taking to Facebook and Twitter like Shakespeare once took to the pen.
According to news reports, social media users instantly began requesting that the companies block the killer’s accounts and provide a warning of Twitter’s autoplay feature, which—let’s remember—takes the choice of viewing online footage out of users’ hands and forces them, in this instance, to see horrors beyond their imagination. In order to disable the feature, users have to take manual steps by adjusting their settings. And how many people knew that?
To their credit, the above-cited companies took swift action to shut down Flanagan’s accounts. BuzzFeed also quickly stepped up and distributed a refreshingly helpful Tweet about how to disable video autoplay on Twitter (Settings—Video Autoplay—“Never Play Videos Automatically”). The Wall Street Journal did the same, including instructions on how to block autoplay videos on Facebook. But is this enough of a remedy to protect us from viewing illegal, violent content?
The autoplay dilemma offers a chilling example of how distanced and dis-empowered we’ve become by way of choosing the content thrown at us once we go online.
According to The Verge, Google’s Chrome also has an autoplay video feature that is it’s “least popular” online accouterment. Like Twitter, Chrome does not ask user permission before a video plays, but the loading and playback time is a bit smarter and less intrusive because it’s on there's a delay. If they know what’s coming, users can use the delay to their advantage and act quickly to prevent a violent video from streaming without their permission.
Matt Warman, chair of the UK’s Parliamentary Internet, Communications, and Technology Forum (Pictfor) told the BBC that social media sites should sift for this kind of content in an effort to protect social media users: “Facebook, Google, Microsoft and others have already worked together with government and regulators to prevent people being exposed to illegal, extremist content, using both automatic and manual techniques to identify footage. Social media, just like traditional media, should consider how shocking other content can be, and make sure consumers are warned appropriately.”