The murder of a TV reporter and her cameraman live on television was shocking.
What made it all the more real for many was being forced to unwittingly witness the murder through videos made by the killer posted to Twitter and Facebook, which automatically played within their social media feeds.
While the shooting was caught live on television, the gunman Vester Flanagan, also captured first-hand video of the shooting.
He then posted that video to his social media accounts. Both Twitter and Facebook automatically play videos when they appear in users’ feeds, which meant that anyone who followed Flanagan was subjected to the video next time they viewed their feed.
Despite Twitter and Facebook’s best efforts, both whom removed Flanagan’s profile – Twitter within eight minutes of the video being posted – the situation was made worse because multiple users and news organisations reposted those videos and clips from the TV broadcast on their social media accounts.
The reposted videos then found their way into more user feeds, automatically playing and forcing more and more users into becoming unwitting witnesses to the shooting.
Outraged users took to Twitter to express their dismay and warn others.
Ultimately Flanagan is to blame for the video, autoplaying or not. Some users on Twitter have also questioned why users and news organisations have reposted the video labeling it as irresponsible and click-baiting.
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and many other social media services and sites have set videos within people’s feeds to automatically play by default. The autoplay feature, intended to make inoffensive content more engaging, is now forcing people to watch videos that they do not want to and would not watch given the choice.
Analysts have suggested that the reason why autoplay on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter exists is to aid advertising. An automatically-playing video or gif is the most eye-catching piece of content in a standard Twitter or Facebook feed. It rolls through, it moves and attracts a user’s gaze, even if only for a moment.
For an advert, that is its primary purpose: to attract eyeballs to whatever it is trying to sell. Twitter, Facebook and many others all rely on adverts to fund their free services. The better the advert attracts views, the more advertisers will pay – and the more money the social media services make.
But autoplay videos, even when showing content that isn’t offensive, consume user’s mobile data, can slow down their smartphones and consume battery life unnecessarily – the biggest pain point of the modern smartphone user.
Now users are calling for autoplay to be made an opt-in, not an opt-out feature that forces users to search through settings screens. Users argue that the downsides of having autoplay active by default are just too big to justify having it automatically turned on for all users.
Turn off autoplay
In the meantime, users can turn off autoplay in the settings of the Facebook, Twitter or Instagram app on their smartphones or on the web in their browsers.
This article was written by Samuel Gibbs, for theguardian.com on Thursday 27th August 2015 13.40 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010