Do social-media providers bear a responsibility to police their own content? Or are their platforms just public spaces and, as such, as blameless as the air into which obscenities are shouted?
Long a point of fascination for media nerds everywhere, this niggling issue has been pushed to the forefront of public consciousness by a number of recent stories. The most famous case is that of the so-called Facebook killer, Steve Stephens, who came to instant global notoriety after he murdered an elderly man for no apparent reason.
After posting the video on social media, Stephens vowed he would continue his killing spree until apprehended by police. He later killed himself in a McDonald's parking lot.
The video stayed up on Facebook for a couple of hours and was later addressed at a panel discussion by Mark Zuckerberg. "We have a lot more work," the Facebook chief executive said, "and we will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening." But since then, Facebook Live has streamed a Thai man murdering a baby and a Swedish court convicted three men who used the service to broadcast a sexual assault in January.
Last week, a viral YouTube video put this question to the test in a different but no less pernicious way. The offending clip was from a popular channel called DaddyOFive, which chronicles the life of a Maryland family of seven.
The channel began a couple of years back as a prank video blog – a widely populated YouTube genre – in which the parents, Mike and Heather Martin, play pranks on their five school-aged children, Ryan, Jake, Alex, Emma and Cody.
The video in question involved the parents pouring fake ink on Cody's bedroom carpet and then falsely accusing him of making a mess: This doesn't sound so bad, but the madness is in the method. Within seconds, Cody's parents are verbally abusing him – screaming, yelling and swearing – and the child becomes hysterical at the injustice of being falsely accused, in obvious terror of being punished.
The emotional pitch is so alarming that the video is unbearable to watch. When the prank is revealed, the father bellows his signature tagline ("It's just a prank, brah!") and Cody is left bereft and isolated, a small child wound up and knocked down for his parents' selfish amusement and profit.
The pattern repeats itself on the channel regularly: One of the children is cruelly antagonized into a state of extreme emotional distress by the parents and then blamed and ridiculed for his or her "overreaction."
Early last week, after the Internet blazed with criticism, the Martins posted a 20-minute response entitled "Blocking All the Haters," laughing off the content of the videos. They distanced themselves from the more disturbing elements by saying much of the drama was staged or scripted.
This refusal to acknowledge any blame while many viewers continued to insist it was straight-up child abuse resulted in YouTube pulling the channel's ads as well as some of the more objectionable content. (When I contacted YouTube, I was given a boilerplate statement confirming the above.)
Once smacked down by their platform, their livelihood threatened, the DaddyOFive parents quickly changed their tune. They've since taken down all video content from their blog and replaced it with a single apology video in which they weep and remonstrate, saying they've made terrible mistakes as parents and are seeking family counselling and the advice of a life coach.
Perhaps the DaddyOFive parents really have seen the error of their ways or maybe they just know which side their digital brand is buttered on – we'll probably never know. But the world they created for their children was a terrifying one and we only glimpsed a small part of it.
Cody, the youngest and most vulnerable child on DaddyOFive, is at one point mocked by his father for compulsively scratching himself until he bleeds. It's an act of self-harm and a textbook coping technique in the face of abuse.
The lack of empathy displayed by his parents is startling, but what's even more startling is that YouTube (and its viewers) provided this family with a platform – and an income – for as long as they did, unchecked and unfettered by moral standards or oversight.
The Internet is not the air. Humans invented it and it belongs to us. Because of this, we must pressure social-media giants to create the necessary systems to police it. Facebook and Google (which owns YouTube) will lose revenue in doing this, but they can afford it.
We might even have to end up paying something for the content we watch and read, but we can afford that too. What we can't afford is any more live, consumable online violence, whether from Facebook killers or DaddyOFives.