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Facebook, Rushing Into Live Video, Wasn’t Ready for Its Dark Side

On orders from Mark Zuckerberg, more than 100 employees at Facebook Inc. were put into what the company calls “lockdown” when they showed up for work one Thursday early last year.

They had been plucked from other projects to focus on the chief executive’s top priority—making it possible for more than a billion Facebook users to stream video live.

Mr. Zuckerberg had made a snap decision near the end of a product meeting in his glass-walled office in Menlo Park, Calif., to work around the clock to roll out Facebook Live, which took just two months. “This is a big shift in how we communicate, and it’s going to create new opportunities for people to come together,” he wrote in a Facebook post during the world-wide launch in April 2016.

At traditional companies, major product launches often take years. Technology firms, and Facebook in particular, emphasize speed even though they know it means there will be problems to iron out later.

And there were problems.

The live-video rush left unanswered many questions with which Facebook is still wrestling, especially how to decide when violence on camera needs to be censored. According to a tally by The Wall Street Journal, people have used Facebook Live to broadcast at least 50 acts of violence, including murder, suicides and the beating in January of a mentally disabled teenager in Chicago.

The company was sharply criticized last July for removing live video from Minnesota woman Diamond Reynolds, who showed her boyfriend, Philando Castile, dying after being shot by a police officer during a traffic stop. Facebook said the removal was due to a technical glitch and restored the video.

Mr. Zuckerberg, eyeing Snap Inc.’s Snapchat and Twitter Inc.’s Periscope, also budgeted more than $100 million to pay media organizations and celebrities to post live videos, according to a person familiar with the rollout.

Nearly a year later, many publishers say Facebook Live viewership is lackluster. Facebook is still tinkering with ways for them to earn money from their broadcasts. Facebook doesn’t disclose viewer data or financial results for Facebook Live.

The bad and good consequences reflect the inherent tension in Mr. Zuckerberg’s vision of Facebook as a crucial part of the world’s “social infrastructure,” a term he used in a nearly 6,000 manifesto last month.

Mr. Zuckerberg, who highlighted feel-good, off-the-cuff videos while trying to get people to try live streaming, conceded last month that “in the last year, the complexity of the issues we’ve seen has outstripped our existing processes for governing the community,” including its handling of some videos.

Facebook must “amplify the good effects and mitigate the bad” of its platform, he wrote in a Facebook post.

A person familiar with the development of Facebook Live said the company “didn’t grasp the gravity of the medium” during the planning process.

A person watches video from July 2016 that was live streamed on Facebook and showed the aftermath of Philando Castile’s shooting death by a Minnesota police officer. Castile’s girlfriend used Facebook Live. PHOTO:AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Few technology leaders embody the industry’s agility like Mr. Zuckerberg, 32 years old, who has a “high tolerance for ambiguity and a high tolerance for risk,” as one former Facebook executive put it.

Mr. Zuckerberg tries to preserve a startup mentality at Facebook even though it is now valued at nearly $400 billion. Posters with Facebook’s longtime motto “Move fast and break things” dot the headquarters campus, even though the motto was changed three years ago. (The new motto stresses speed and stability.)

Facebook Live builds on the groundwork of online video platforms such as Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube. More than a decade ago, YouTube offered a way to share videos without passing through traditional media channels and their careful editorial principles and federal decency guidelines, and the short delay to catch inappropriate content.

Facebook’s embrace of the smartphone made tasks instantaneous that were cumbersome on YouTube, such as streaming live or immediately blasting to networks of friends.

The most-watched live video, known as “Chewbacca Mom,” features Facebook user Candace Payne in her car, laughing uproariously over a noise-making Chewbacca mask. The 3½-minute video has been viewed 166 million times since May 2016.

“There is an insatiable appetite for things happening live,“ said Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Facebook, by combining the process of normalizing this technology and its scale, inherits the upside of making this a mainstream platform, as well as the downside.”

Facebook began focusing on video in 2014. At first, the company looked to on-demand content, in which users play videos they want to see. Executives were skeptical everyday Facebook users would use live video, according to several current and former employees.

In 2015, Facebook let some celebrities, including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, start to live stream. The company later widened access to the feature to some U.S. users with Apple Inc.’s iPhones. That was consistent with how Facebook tests new products with small batches of users.

The moment for Facebook Live came in the last 10 minutes of a meeting in February 2016 when product executives met Mr. Zuckerberg in his office to discuss the company’s video strategy, including plans to launch a video tab in the Facebook mobile app.

Fidji Simo, who oversees media products at Facebook, mentioned a surprising statistic from the live video trial. Seventy percent of the users were college- or high-school-aged, and a large number were African-American teenagers, according to several former Facebook employees.

While the Facebook Live team had expected streams of weddings and holiday parties, many videos came from inside classrooms. And the young people who seemed to be taking an interest in Facebook Live were in the same demographic group that was drifting away from Facebook in favor of apps such as disappearing-message service Snapchat.

At the meeting, Mr. Zuckerberg paused when he heard the encouraging news about Facebook Live, recalled Ms. Simo. She said the CEO wondered if the company should rethink a lot of the work being done and planned for video. He asked if Facebook should “focus way more resources on Live,” she recalled.

As of December, Facebook had 1.23 billion daily users, up 18% from a year earlier, but most of the growth came from outside the U.S., Canada and Europe. The company's profit jumped to $10.22 billion in 2016, from $3.69 billion in 2015.

“Original broadcast sharing,” a closely watched internal measurement of how often Facebook users share posts or photos, has slipped despite Facebook’s success in setting records each quarter in number of users, people familiar with the matter said.

Within days, Mr. Zuckerberg imposed the lockdown, rarely used for large-scale projects at Facebook now. The team’s work area was marked by a sign with the word “lockdown” in neon blue cursive.

The world-wide marketing push of Facebook Live was slated for early April 2016 so that the live streaming service could be touted at Facebook’s conference for developers in San Francisco shortly afterward. By then, engineers needed to build new features, including one that would make “likes” and other Facebook reactions float across users’ screens.

To help the product stand out, Facebook sought live videos from celebrities and news outlets. The company was ready to spend heavily for those videos and diverted the funds from initiatives such as paying publishers to make 360-degree videos, a former Facebook employee said.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg went on a charm tour to get “anchor content” from celebrities and major publishers, according to people familiar with her pitches.

Facebook reached deals with media outlets that included BuzzFeed, the New York Times and CNN, promising to pay at least $52 million in return for them creating videos for Facebook Live, The Wall Street Journal reported in June. Facebook saw those deals as a stopgap measure until it could create an ad-revenue-sharing system.

Regular users were already broadcasting their own videos, and some were violent. In late March, just before the big rollout, a man in Chicago was shot several times while streaming himself standing in front of a convenience store.

Facebook removed violent videos, and many employees were confident it could filter out objectionable content. The April push proceeded on schedule, and much of the early attention was grabbed by whimsical videos, such as employees of online news and entertainment site BuzzFeed snapping rubber bands around a watermelon until it exploded.

In July, Facebook employees watched as Mr. Castile’s girlfriend live streamed images of his bloody body. The employees were both sobered and proud that Facebook had documented the moment, according to some who were there. Mr. Zuckerberg and other executives expressed condolences for the families of Mr. Castile and his girlfriend, Ms. Reynolds.

A police officer who fatally shot Mr. Castile pleaded not guilty last month to manslaughter and other felony charges.

Some Facebook users clicked on “Report post” to flag the video to Facebook as violent. Such reports trigger a review that can result in removing posts for violating Facebook's community standards. 

Other users complained about older, unrelated posts on her Facebook page in an effort to prod the company into shutting down Ms. Reynolds’s page, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The reports flooded Facebook’s system, leading to a glitch in artificial-intelligence procedures that took down her profile for more than an hour. That kept Facebook users from replaying the video. Critics claimed censorship by the company, which it has repeatedly denied.

“Before Live launched, we thought long and hard about the things people might share, and that some may be shocking or traumatic,” said Facebook’s Ms. Simo. “We have more than a decade of experience dealing with sensitive content, and we applied many of those lessons to Live.”

Current and former employees at Facebook said its content-moderation teams were trained to remove offensive or violent live videos, such as beheadings and pornography. Live videos are handled by a small team of contractors who work around the clock in eight-hour shifts.

Yet live videos like Ms. Reynolds’s fell into a gray area that challenged Facebook’s guidelines, which are still evolving, according to other people familiar with the company’s review process.

Facebook said the context of a video is essential when determining if the video is permissible. Videos that condemn violence are allowed, but others celebrating it aren't.

The problem during the live video of Mr. Castile is that no one at Facebook could predict what was going to happen next. The attention the video immediately received was overwhelming.

Some Facebook employees were rattled by the glitch that took down Ms. Reynolds’s Facebook page and the firestorm of criticism aimed at the company. They said they weren’t prepared for either. “It wasn’t immediately clear that [Facebook Live] was going to be used in these ways,” said a former employee.

After the controversial live stream, Facebook said in a blog post that live video was a “new and growing format” with “unique challenges.” Executives said in December that Facebook wants artificial-intelligence software to root out inappropriate live videos, perhaps even stopping them midstream. The technology isn’t ready.

Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami and vice president of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, a group focused on stopping online abuse, said Facebook was naive about how Facebook Live would be used.

“If you can’t get a handle on it, maybe the answer is not to introduce that particular technology,” she said. When she offers that opinion to tech companies, “they look at me like I’ve sprouted another head,” she added.

Facebook is plowing ahead with efforts to encourage users to try Facebook Live. One of the company’s largest-ever advertising campaigns, launched in October, shows how to “go live” if users see someone walking an animal that isn’t a dog, emphasizing the lighthearted side of the product.

Its popularity has waned slightly, some publishers say. Engagement is “not through the roof,” according to one publisher paid by Facebook. Another publisher said live videos attract viewers during “a breaking-news situation, but nothing we plan works.”

Facebook said it may extend some of its Facebook Live contracts, many of which expire this spring. It has started putting ads in live videos so publishers can get a cut of the revenue.

In a sign that Facebook might be reining in its ambitions for Facebook Live, the newly launched video tab in the company’s mobile app will include other types of video content. As part of a push to attract television-like original programing, Facebook is promising creators a prominent spot within the tab.

Facebook Live still is generating the kind of attention that Facebook doesn’t want. Video of the January attack on the teenager in Chicago stayed on the Facebook page of one of the alleged attackers for at least 23 hours and was viewed more than 16,000 times before Facebook’s reviewers intervened.