Future Tense

The Problem With Snapchat’s Coverage of the Terror in Nice

Snapchat’s “live story” function lets it algorithm control what users see, which is problematic during times of tragedy.

Images from Snapchat. Illustration courtesy of Slate.fr.

This article originally appeared on Slate.fr, Slate’s French sister site.

It’s a question that returns with every terrorist act or major accident: Is it necessary to spread shocking images of these tragedies? In recent months, several arguments have broken out around the circulation of violent images, especially since the introduction of apps like Periscope and Facebook Live, which aim to broadcast events live.

With the attack in Nice, France, where a man killed at least 84 people with the help of a truck, it’s news channels and certain accounts on Twitter and Facebook that most internet users have their eyes on. France 2 was criticized for having interviewed a husband in front of his wife’s body, and Wikileaks for circulating shocking amateur videos. But another platform also decided to show fly-on-the-wall content by internet users: Snapchat.

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On this app intended to exchange and publish ephemeral videos and photos, there are “live stories” managed by the company. In aggregating videos and photos published by users present at a precise moment and place, the app can construct the story of a particular event. For instance, there has long existed a Paris story, which tells the story of everyday life in the capital city thanks to snaps sent by people geolocated onsite.

Most of the time, live stories are joyous events. For instance, the last Paris story shows the Bastille Day fireworks. But in the hours following the attack, Snapchat published a “live story” on the Nice attack with very strong, even quite shocking, images, especially because they’re shot from shoulder height in the crowd. It’s a transcript of what people are seeing and hearing right this minute, and several seconds of video captured live.

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In a first video, after basic information about the situation added by the app, we see a rush of the crowd, panicked, just alongside the Promenade aux Anglais. We hear a man, maybe the one who’s filming, say to his young child, who’s in tears, “Don’t cry.” The video cuts out, Snapchat shows a message warning us that the following images will be “graphiques,” an Anglicism that informs us of the violence of the collected snaps.

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After that, the snaps that are less than 10 seconds long come one after another. We see people running as far as possible from the “Prom,” their faces still frightened. We hear users say that they’re hearing gunshots, or another cries out, panicked, “Fuck, what’s going on, what’s going on now? Fuck, fuck, what’s going on what’s going on? Why is everyone running?”

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Yet again, we pass from one terrified person to another. After a shot of the firefighters hurtling down a street, a young woman speaks directly to the camera: “Abby and I are fine. Frankly it’s fucking crazy, there’s a truck that burst in and everything, and it actually crushed the people.” Under numerous videos, Snapchat continues to add information, quotations from the president of the region, Christian Estrosi, or measures taken by François Hollande. In another surrealist snap, we see a member of the police anti-terrorism unit asking for news on what’s happening on a square near the promenade.

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The unspooling of the story finishes on the most recent news available. Except instead of talking about the “Islamist terrorist threat” in quoting the remarks of François Hollande, Snapchat falls victim to the worst malapropism and writes “Islamic terrorist threat.”

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The discomfort is just as strong when you look at the more discreet feature called Explorer. In the middle of the “live story,” you can swipe up on the screen to discover the story from other angles thanks to other videos sent by users. Except that, contrary to classic stories, this part isn’t curated by humans but by robots that choose which snaps that will appear in Explorer. So we see a photo with an upside-down smiley face emoji, and another using the “Promenade des Anglais” filter, usually used for touristic snapshots and to share one’s whereabouts, but this time taken just after the attack. That these two users added these two symbols qualifies as bad taste, but that Snapchat lets algorithms direct this kind of tragedy is problematic.

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This story, far removed from the others, exists because it fits into Snapchat’s strategy of wanting to become a news medium. Each day, the app counts 10 billion views on its stories and 100 million users from around the world documenting their life each day. The company told us via email that 1 billion snaps are posted each day, both public and not. So it’s easy to understand that there’s an incredible informative potential. In an article on March 31, Fortune wrote that the app wants to dominate the media: “If you are a media company of any kind, Snapchat is becoming a potentially powerful partner—but also a potentially powerful competitor as well.”

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So it makes sense to see stories dedicated to events with worldwide repercussions. During the shooting in Dallas, the dedicated story warned viewers before showing them at least one sniper from far away and other videos where gunshots were heard. In France, the app hadn’t yet covered tragic events in this manner. During the attacks in Paris, the app displayed snaps by Parisians and tourists showing their support for the victims, not violent content like it did at Nice.

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But when you know what clumsy errors appeared in this story, and that the public capable of viewing these violent images is predominantly adolescent, you can ask questions about the company’s work in this matter.

When we contacted a spokesperson for Snapchat, he confirmed that the app launched its curation of snaps geolocated in Nice as soon as the attack took place (a proposition that hadn’t existed until then). According to Snapchat, the general principle of live stories is to show events from hundreds of different perspectives and angles.

For events like the Euros, it’s easy to understand this kind of reasoning. But for tragedies like the attack in Nice, you might wonder if the app’s audience really wants to live through the terror from all the angles and from shoulder height, which immerses us in the tragedy more easily than images on TV. Even if the user chooses to open this story with full knowledge of the facts. Especially since the story is accessible throughout the country. While Twitter also has a curation of tragic videos, Snapchat goes further than Facebook, since it suggests these images to its users. By the way, on Twitter, numerous people showed their anger after falling into this story.

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When we asked questions about the people responsible for this very sensitive news content, Snapchat refused to give us specific details on the composition of the team on duty in London, but they reminded us that it’s Peter Hamby, formerly a journalist at CNN, who’s the head of news there.

With events like this capable of repeating from one day to the next, the role of Snapchat in the news cycle will explode as it seduces more and more people. Is it necessary, as certain television channels did, to show shocking images? Will warning users with a simple message prevent the young audience from seeing these images? Snapchat will have to answer these questions if it wants to make a place for itself in the media world. And this kind of story asks questions of us, too, because we film this violence, and we send it voluntarily to Snapchat. Meanwhile, on the app, the threat hovering over France is still “Islamic.”

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