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How Periscope became social media’s most disturbing platform

Over the last few weeks, the app has made headlines for broadcasting a suicide, a rape, and a physical assault. Are we really ready for live-streaming?

Last week, a 19-year-old woman – known only as ‘Océane’ – began what would be her last ever Periscope broadcast. “The video I am doing right now is not made to create buzz, but rather to make people react, to open minds, and that’s it,” she told viewers. “I have reached the point where nothing pleases me... Nothing can make me want to get up in the morning.”

Suddenly, the French teenager’s screen went black. Intrigued by the sudden loss of visuals, comments began flooding across the app. “Where is she?” wrote one user. “I think it’s fun”, typed another. Others began to grow concerned. “Should someone call the police?” 

Five minutes later, an emergency worker became visible. Then, shortly after that, a train. “I am under the train with the victim,” the worker said, urgently. “I need to move the victim.”

With that, the worst was quickly confirmed: Océane had jumped in front of a train at Egly station, and had broadcast the entire event to viewers all around the world.

“Social media by its very nature encourages exhibitionism: so what happens when you add a real, live audience to the equation?”

This deeply disturbing incident is not unique. As social media embraces the idea of live-streaming, similar incidents are becoming more and more common. Just last month, 18-year-old Marina Lonina was accused of filming her friend getting raped by a man they had met in an Ohio mall. Despite the suspect denying the allegations, the Periscope footage clearly captures the victim in distress, while Lonina does nothing but “giggle” and “laugh” in the background (the prosecutor eventually claimed that the teenager was too “caught up in the likes” to get help). Similarly, in the same month, two French teenagers used Periscope to broadcast a violent assault on an unidentified man in Bordeaux.

Given the quick succession of these events, it’s easy to draw dark conclusions about live-streaming. Are we just not ready for it? Why would anyone want to use it in this way? And could these kinds of apps actually be doing more harm than good to our mental health?

“Like the rationale behind selfies, Periscope is a way of validating your experiences,” explains Professor Paul Springer, of the School of Arts and Digital Industries at the University of East London. “In such extreme examples as the online rape and suicides, it is most likely a way of making it more relevant and notorious than any predecessors. In the former, it’s wanting to be a star in the eyes of a specific community of like-minds.”

Of course, the majority of content on Periscope isn’t this extreme. The app – which once sent a pretty unextraordinary puddle in Newcastle viral – apparently aims to encourage “direct and unfiltered participation” in the online world. “Periscope is about being in the moment, connected to a person and a place,” the terms and conditions insist; before adding that the utmost measures are taken to ensure the app’s content remains as “fun”, “open” and “safe” as possible.

“Whenever a new media form is still finding its boundaries it is extreme or unusual instances such as (the suicide) that become THE reference point,” shrugs off Springer. “There are many cases where extreme acts have been turned around and stopped in the nick of time, but the positive punchlines do not make as much impact as news stories with starker conclusions.”

Unfortunately, despite Periscope’s positive intentions, these extreme events are stirring up the same old fears about social media. After all, with 16-24-year-olds now spending over 27 hours a week on the Internet, we’re more reliant on it than ever before. According to a recent International Center for Media & the Public Affairs (ICMPA) study, students across the world now view digital technology as “essential” to the way they construct and manage their friendships and social lives – which makes cases like these all the more unsettling. 

With live-streaming in particular, there is a stronger sense of disquiet. Despite apps like Twitch, Meerkat, Periscope and Facebook Live promoting it as a positive (or, according to Zuckerberg, “visceral”) new way of interacting online, there are worries over its lack of security. After all, social media by its very nature encourages exhibitionism: so what happens when you add a real, live audience to the equation?

According to Forrester Research analyst Thomas Husson, brutal broadcasts like these are an “inevitable” part of the live-streaming experience. “It would be very difficult to prevent such events from happening,” he told the New York Times last week. “We now live in a dictatorship of real time.”

“Internet giants are starting to monitor how people use their technologies in real time, but it’s tricky. It’s almost impossible to control how people use social media” – Thomas Husson

“These technologies enable real-time streaming, which can have a lot of unintended consequences,” he added. “Internet giants are starting to monitor how people use their technologies in real time, but it’s tricky. It’s almost impossible to control how people use social media.”

It’s worth noting that public suicides are nothing new. Often seen by sufferers as a way of getting revenge on a world that has neglected them, they have been occurring at train stations and national landmarks for as long as we can remember. The only difference now is that the audience is bigger than ever before.

Ultimately, this means that the onus is now on the apps themselves. These incidents, although extreme, offer an insight into the way people will use these tools, so the only way to stop them becoming a widespread phenomenon is by introducing better, more reactive safety systems: whether that’s an emergency button, a helpline, or an urgent flagging tool. Unfortunately, Periscope is still yet to issue an official comment on the suicide, rape or assault broadcasts (it says it is unable to discuss “individual accounts”), so it’s next move – whether there will even be one – is unknown. 

“There are a huge number of people who talk about their morbid thoughts, even if they don't necessarily act,” muses psychologist Michael Stora. “I've heard young people say very disturbing things in the name of freedom of speech, but freedom only exists within a framework, and here there's no longer a framework – we are in a crazy place.”