Violence on Social Media

It’s now a familiar trope in Hollywood–a politician is blackmailed by terrorists who claim they will post a video of a decapitation or some other type of violence against a victim on social media, usually YouTube.

Violence captured and shared on social media: this content tends to become quickly viral, and is difficult to contain for social media platforms that host user generated content. Today, Facebook is increasingly feeling the heat, most recently when Steve Stephens, a Cleveland native, posted a video of him randomly shooting and killing an innocent victim, Robert Goodwin, that was viewed over 1.6 million times before the video was pulled by Facebook more than two hours later.  

Last month, it was a gang rape in Chicago that was streamed on Facebook Live. In January, another similar incident in Sweden was streamed on Facebook Live. Torture of a man with disabilities, child abuse, and suicides have all been streamed on Facebook as well as its subsidiary, Instagram.

Facebook’s typical response to these events involve: taking down content as quickly as possible, an emphasis that the company doesn’t condone this type of content, and a promise to do better.

It seems that the bulk of Facebook’s responses have focused on improving its internal operations and technology, in order to reduce the time from when the content is uploaded to when it is reported, to when it is taken down. Facebook has started exploring using artificial intelligence to prevent questionable content from being shared.

Yet, the challenge of dealing with violent content on social media is not new news. YouTube similarly has had disturbing violent incidents or videos posted, where suspects discuss their intentions for mass shootings. The Syrian Civil War has also led to the uploading of mass violence on YouTube. 

Here is a look at some key events that have happened on social media in the past decade:

While there is almost no way to capture a complete picture of all violent events on social media, it’s clear that with the launch of Facebook Live, the violence has become more real-time, and perhaps more varied. In the era before Facebook Live launches, most videos of violence are related to international crises, where different interest groups are using YouTube as a communication channel for propaganda. The videos of police violence against African Americans in 2015 also showcase how video sharing has changed between then and now: most videos are released significantly after an event occurrence, and their dissemination is still controlled by news media, police, etc. Perhaps because of this, most of the criticism launched at YouTube has been around the difficulty of implementing an effective policy that filters out inflammatory content yet protects the freedom of speech.

In contrast, today’s violent content is easily controlled and disseminated by the perpetrators themselves. This shift is seen as largely thought to be driven by the fact that “The attention from online peers, combined with immediate feedback in the form of comments, reactions and shares, can be intoxicating. The fact that the footage is self-incriminating doesn’t matter to some offenders,” the Guardian claims.

Yet, it’s important to consider whether all violence on social media should be banned. The timeline above shows some key video content that have been critical in spreading public awareness about issues such as police brutality, or mass violence in the Syrian Civil War. The societal importance from public access to such violent content cannot be understated.

Where does that leave users? Unless social media companies develop more automated solutions to identify violence that is purely criminal, and does not have any societal benefit, there will likely be more violent events covered on Facebook Live or otherwise. Understandably, defining what has “societal benefit” is a tricky line to define–and one that will involve a strong hand of company-driven curation, which historically companies such as Facebook and Google have been reluctant to pursue.


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Climate change & terrorism: The data

Last November, Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders raised some eyebrows when he said, “…climate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism. If we do not get our act together and listen to what the scientists say, you’re gonna see countries all over the world — this is what the CIA says — they’re going to be struggling over limited amounts of water, limited amounts of land to grow their crops, and you’re going to see all kinds of international conflict.”

Since then, a number of media outlets have fact-checked this statement, and PolitiFact has rated this comment as being Mostly False. You can read about PolitiFact’s full analysis here.

While Sanders’s comments were perhaps too direct in establishing a causality relationship between climate change and terrorism, he’s not alone in connecting the impact of climate change as a destabilizing force that terrorist organizations can take advantage of. The Defense Department mentions climate change as a “threat multiplier” in a 2014 report, and Al Gore has been quoted numerous times how the Syrian Civil War was caused by extreme drought conditions, which were caused by climate change.

While intuitively, these arguments make logical sense, other than anecdotal one-off instances (i.e. drought in Syria led to Syrian Civil War, drought in Nigeria led to Boko Haram, etc.), what has lacked is a comprehensive review of extreme weather conditions globally in recent years, and whether geographies facing the worst impact of climate change has seen an increase in terrorist activities. Based on Sanders’s statements, this seems like a reasonable assumption to make.

The first place to look was at where climate change was hitting the hardest in recent history. Mapped below is a heatmap of the impact of extreme weather events on the population. The higher number, the great percentage of the population that has been impacted by extreme weather such as drought, floods, etc.

Data source: IMF. Extreme weather impact on percentage of population, 1990-2009

An interactive version of the map is here:!/publish-confirm

Swaziland, Malawi, China, Niger, and Eritrea are countries who have populations most impacted by severe weather conditions. If Sanders’s comments hold true, we should also see the highest number of terrorist activities in those countries in recent history. Mapped below is the number of casualties from terrorist incidents since 1980. Casualties were plotted here instead of number of incidents to show the severity of terrorist activity.

It is immediately apparent that those 5 countries do not have anywhere near the highest number of terrorist casualties in the past two to three decades.

Also included in the interactive map for context is the percentage change in GDP year over year to potentially show the amplifier impact of climate change, as well as poor economic conditions on terrorist activity. However, based on the data that is presented, no direct relationship can be easily seen between both climate change, and economic health on terrorist activity. Sanders’s comments don’t hold up against the data. Instead, as Time and PolitiFact have indicated, there seems to be many other factors that contribute towards terrorist incidents.

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The value of a human life

For this week’s curation assignment, I created mine on Storify, link here:

A quick note on using Storify: Overall, I found Storify to be easy to use as long as I didn’t need anything other than what their tools strictly allowed. But, simple things like including an image were unnecessarily difficult or not supported. Its integration with Twitter also only supported recent tweets, which I had to find a work around to since I was including tweets from over a month back. The URL also couldn’t be manually updated, hence why the URL doesn’t tie with my actual story. I would only recommend Storify for breaking or recent news stories and curation.

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MIT Starr Forum: National Security & Civil Liberties 1942 & 2017

I’ve been interested in multi-media storytelling, so have created an article on Atavist for my coverage. My story is here:

The event I covered was:
2017 Day of Remembrance: MIT Starr Forum presents National Security and Civil Liberties 1942 & 2017
Saturday Feb 25th 2pm to 4pm

Time stamps:
Start 2:30pm (Technical difficulties and skipped opening statements of the event)
End: 6:35pm


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Google Translate: A keystone for global communication

Google Translate is a tool that most of us already know and use. As one of the more popular Google products, it currently serves 500 million monthly users. While Google Translate historically may have been helpful for casual browsers of the internet, it’s not really useful enough to rely on completely for every day conversation, nor for a comprehensive understanding of foreign website.

Google’s recent update of Google Translate, however, has changed that. As of December last year, Google introduced AI into Google Translate, making the product astoundingly better. NYTimes shares the below example:

“Uno no es lo que es por lo que escribe, sino por lo que ha leído.”
With the original Google Translate: “One is not what is for what he writes, but for what he has read.”
With the new A.I.-rendered version: “You are not what you write, but what you have read.”

The difference is stark. Not only has the improvement enabled more coherent and seamless translations, the Google Neural Machine Translation tool now is able to link between two different languages that haven’t been previously linked. That is, Google Translate (idiomatically speaking) has it’s own language that it translates all languages to, thus enabling it to translate two different languages that it hasn’t been explicitly linked to. This improvement opens the door to more language pairings without much of the previous heavy lifting of explicitly linking one language and translating it to another.

This change has interesting implications on the future of news. It makes international news articles accessible to everyone. It allows journalists much easier and faster (and more reliable) access to sources–whether it be other people or documentation and data. More data will simply be more accessible.

It also may have implications on the labor force in the news industry–local speakers may not eventually be needed for reporting. How might this change the type of coverage we get? In a time when some news articles are already written by bots, will Google Translate improve our coverage because we can “understand” more? Or will this make news stories even more impersonal and spotty as we miss cultural nuances and context that only a local expert can provide? The potential implications seem both exciting, and daunting.


Sources and more information:

Google’s AI translation tool seems to have invented its own secret internal language

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Hi! I’m Aileen.

Hi! I’m Aileen, a second year Sloan MBA who is coffee & pastry obsessed. In a world where I have oodles of money, I would own a high end bakery, and smell the smell of baking croissants all day. I hum when I feel awkward.

But perhaps more relevantly–



  • My Background: 
    • Education: Majored in Political Science, Minored in Economics. Originally I wanted to be a journalist to pay the bills as I worked my way through the next great American novel. Was fascinated most in my classes by the role of media in political society.
    • Work Experience (journalism ended up not working out): 
      • Advertising: I used analytics and statistics to optimize media placement, brand messaging, and media mix for clients like JetBlue, and
      • Google: Decided I wanted to understand how businesses worked. I helped launch and grow a new product, and also did operations strategy.
      • Entrepreneurship: Creating your own product felt compelling, and still is. I am a co-founder for Armoire, a startup that was in MIT’s summer accelerator this past summer, and still going strong.
  • My Personal interests:
    • Better media for the average person: After studying mass media in American democracy during my undergrad, I struggled with some of the shortcomings in today’s media: the sensational headlines, dizzyingly short news cycles, parachute journalism, and inaccessibility by the average American. I’m passionate about finding a media structure that is engaging and educational for everyone, not just people who read The Economist.
    • Food science: Because, science makes everything tasty!
    • Other things I do in my free time: Learning how to photograph & edit, blogging & writing, learning French, baking, and learning how to gracefully lose at chess.