Protester sharing live footage via TwitCasting, Rio de Janeiro, July 3, 2013. Credit: Mídia NINJA, taken from Irene v. Small @ ARTFORUM.
Live streaming is a process of transmitting video and audio data packets across a network in order to distribute the content to a peer or an audience. This takes many forms from corporate webcasts to streaming live video games on the Twitch platform. It may seem like the whole technology can encompass a vast amount of theory, but it isn’t the case. Having worked with the technology for the best part of a decade I’ve come to realize it can be theorized into two major categories. It is either an exercise of citizenship or the affirmation/reaffirmation of community.
There is a great deal of literature and research surrounding the STEM aspects of live streaming which is mainly concerned with how to make the technology more efficient, even though it’s getting to the point of zero latency for high-resolution qualities, which now only seem to be restricted by the amount of bandwidth at a given location. However, this article doesn’t intend to focus on the technical and mechanical parts of the streaming as this has been written about at length elsewhere and can quite frankly be rather stuffy and impenetrable for the average person. Also, the average person or even streamer will probably never have to worry about streaming architecture and engineering, because a whole industry has been born out of the mantra:
‘Make live streaming open-source and easy’.
This industry has become more prevalent during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 with demand for live streams skyrocketing. Streaming production companies have even reported bubble-like revenue increases of sums as high as 300% and 400%. It is thus, essential, to theorize this technology and place it within a social context.
Confirmation of Community
Streaming is all about engagement, and therefore the majority of streams are in fact the affirmation or reaffirmation of community. This applies across the board, with the community aspect of any broadcast either being active or passive in audience engagement. Some examples of passive engagements are activities like religious sermons unless the audience sing-along at a distance, gameplay commentary, or lectures. Some examples of more active engagement come in the form of a Facebook or Instagram live poll’s, Twitch Q&A’s, or specific sites and mobile applications like the QLive quiz app, which I helped launch with NewsUK a number of years ago, or the Boiler Room Concerts (Where I also used to work).
The Boiler Room concerts are a good example of an online arena where a community can form, and listen to music at a party. The audience would also comment and share the tracks across social media. In the early days, many people would share the video from Youtube to other social platforms, this was before Facebook had released its live API. However, there were always ‘hackrounds’ to get a live feed into platforms like Facebook and beat its single-camera mobile phone API. Now it is only a matter of time before Instagram releases their API to allow for multiple camera streams to plumb into the platform, as there are currently a vast amount of ‘hackrounds’ to get streams into Instagram from encoders rather than phones. Some examples of these are using the PHP coding language, mobile emulators like Bluestack, or platforms like Loolya or Yellow Duck. These ‘hackrounds’ are simply another way of reaffirming for streamers the idea of community. The fact that one streamer or business can get their multi-camera feed into a platform that is not authorised to take that video as a source, is in fact a statement to the wider streaming and podcasting audience that the technology is innovative and exciting. That gesture in itself cultivates the rebellious and innovative image live stream audiences respond to.
This is one very specific example of how the technology fosters community engagement, but there is also the more obvious aspect. The whole point of producing a live stream is so you can engage with your peers or an audience, within your community, about a point of view or a narrative. For example, a business forum may use seeded questions in order to steer a conversation to sell a product or service. These are pre-produced questions that are shoehorned into a live poll by the organization streaming the event to start the conversation around their brand, product/service, or topic. This is a form of reaffirmation to a community where the producer is affirming that they want to drive their marketing in a certain direction in order to shape a response or a reaction within said community.
Linkedin is also a platform that in the last few years has opened up its API to allow authorised accounts to live stream content. This has given way to live-streamed forums from channels that specifically target policy and decision-makers. Thus, this is a direct lobbying attempt to engage the right individuals in regard to various social, political, and economic issues. During 2020 this has also been the case for academics and universities who have used live streaming to stay in touch with their community of students and deliver on their promises of providing education during the pandemic.
Another example applies to gamers on Twitch who use the platform to cultivate an online community, as a form of escapism from actual social interactions. Twitch is currently the largest online streaming platform owned by Amazon, and politicians have started to tap into its gaming community. The progressive US Senator Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used the platform recently and ‘Broke the Internet’, when she answered a Q&A with a Twitch celebrity. This then prompted other progressive Senators like Ilhan Omar and Bernie Sanders to join the platform to potentially engage with and reach new audiences.
AOC’s Debut Live stream to Twitch where she played the game Among US.
Flipped: The Darkside of Live streaming Communities
Having outlined some of the positive aspects of live streaming community engagement, it’s also important to address the negative aspects in the form of bad actors online. Of late, there’s a counter-public sphere where aspects of post-modernism have come to lead some individuals of this counter-public to self-identify as the marginalized and underrepresented. This is not the case, yet there are dark corners of the internet that have been spilling into the actual public sphere over the last few years, which have just so happened to coincide with the rise of live streaming. Unfortunately, it’s essential to highlight the New Zealand case where a far-right terrorist live-streamed himself on Facebook committing mass murder at a Mosque in Christchurch in 2017. This was ultimately a way for the assailant to engage in his echo chamber of hate and racism for a total of 17 minutes until the video was taken down. This then sparked copycat crimes such as the one in Germany which was streamed to Twitch.
These kinds of crimes have thus prompted social media platforms to enhance their content moderation policies to protect the safety of their audiences’, yet, this has come at the expense of the moderating communities' mental health. This led many platforms to adopt AI content moderation tools to take down videos that may violate the platform's policies. YouTube, for example, ramped up these AI’s significantly during the pandemic as many of their employees were working from home. This has major complications though because these AI algorithms have actually made investigations harder for the Human Rights Fact-finding community. Videos that could have subsequently been used as evidence for war crimes and human rights abuses might have been taken down and then be deleted by the platform, in Facebook's case that happens after 90 days.
Unfortunately, murder has also strangely become the dark cancer of live streaming. There have even been discussions on Reddit of the apparent existence of ‘Red Rooms’. These are sites on the dark web where people can pay to watch live snuff and torture films. Their existence is debatable, however, there have been confirmed cases of child molesters utilizing live-streamed videos on the dark web.
It’s important to stress that a small minority produce these horrific acts online. Never the less, they are not always limited to the far-right hate groups and the seedy corners of the internet. The State in many cases, especially the Police in the United States, has been shown to murder civilians on live streams as well. These have come to light through a wave of on-site witness’s videos, which ties into the subcategory of the theory of social engagement where the streamer can exercise their right to citizenship.
Livestreaming as an exercise of Citizenship
The revolution will be live-streamed. Taken from Mary Mui’s article for Quartz about the demonstrations in Hong Kong.
This is the most crucial kind of live streaming and plays into the good nature of social media being a dual-functional tool. Live streams can be utilized by human rights fact-finding professionals. This has been seen in the case of the Syrian Conflict, or police and security forces killing of African Americans in the USA, and Afro-descendants in Brazil. However, there are some ethical concerns when human rights NGO’s advertise these kinds of operations to potential donors. This has been written about at length by Professor Chouliaraki at LSE who argues that war crimes and human rights coverage and videos, in general, can lead to voyeurism. Solidarity can be driven by the donor's emotions rather than the vulnerability of the subject in the video. Yet, where live streams are more commonly used in regards to rights, is as an exercise of citizenship, that demonstrates the right to protest.
Since 2019, there has been an explosion of protests and demonstrations happening around the world from Hong Kong and Chile in 2019, to the USA and Nigeria in 2020. Yet, the literature focusing on live streaming as distant witnessing (as it’s usually referred to), data witnessing, or digital witnessing, has been surprisingly stark over this period. The scholarly literature surrounding protest movements peaked between 2011 and 2017, and of late it has been falling out of the zeitgeist of social justice and citizenship literature to make way for the threat of Deepfakes and Shallowfakes. These forms of fakery are technically two different threats that use different production techniques, however, the important takeaway is that both of these viral video technologies achieve the same outcome, realistically manipulating an individual’s speech and image. Thus, there is rightly a lot of concern over the application of these techniques in regard to human rights which has been driven by the NGO WITNESS. Yet, there is still space for research into the application of live streaming from demonstrations.
When live streaming any protest or demonstration, there is a sense of contesting citizenship. This can be seen across the scholarship of social movements in the global North and South. For example, 2011 saw an abundance of demonstrations being live-streamed to Twitter in Egypt which became part of the Arab Spring, or the CUTV Quebec demonstrations (due to raising university tuition fees) being live-streamed. Many of these live feeds were used by news outlets as informational subsidies in order to also tell the story to mainstream audiences as well.
Both of these events were also cementing solidarity within a community, yet, they were also the catalyst for exercising their right to protest, the right to the city and ownership of the urban space, and the right to participate in a democratic society. In some cases live streaming as a tool for social justice has also been successfully utilized by indigenous communities to contest their right to land and environment. This is best seen by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 where the hashtag #NoDAPL was used to alert the rest of the world to their community's fight for citizenship and land rights. However, this was not without controversy, Facebook came under fire for taking down one of the live streams from the media collective Unicorn Riot covering the demonstrations.
Another interesting example exists in Brazil where the media collective Midia Ninja, have built their model around live streaming demonstrations since the 2013 Sao Paulo protests surrounding the rise in transit fares. These demonstrations in Brazil were subsequently hijacked by the Movimentos Nas Ruas movement who also utilized live streaming as a tool to exercise their right to citizenship. However, their movement set the wheels in motion for the political right to lay the groundwork for a constitutional coup to take place in Brazil in 2016. Solemnly, this kind of citizenship action is explained by James Holston’s (A Political Anthropolosit who studies Brazil and the USA) Idea of democratic citizenship where:
“The worldwide insurgence of democratic citizenship in recent decades has disrupted established formulas of rule and privilege in the most diverse societies. The result is the entanglement with democracy and it’s counters, in which new citizens arise to expand democratic citizenship and new forms of violence and exclusions simultaneously erode it.”
Therefore, it’s important to remember that even though live streaming as a tool can be used to engage with peers or connect with a certain community, it can, like social media in general, fall into the trap of being dual-functional. Regarding live streaming as a confirmation of citizenship, it is also important to remember, that like social movements, they can have their narratives and objectives hijacked by bad actors. These can either come from groups hell-bent on destroying a movement or just a confusion of leadership and/or direction of a movement which leads it astray. Unfortunately, in these cases live streaming just becomes a tool in that fragile social ecosystem.
It’s also important to acknowledge that there are some serious implications the technology will have to overcome in the future in terms of security. For example, deepfakes are starting to find their way into live video and audio. Nvidia the hardware and gaming company has even created a WebRTC based application called Maxine for video calls that uses AI to generate people's faces during online video calls. The company has said it is “not their intention” for the technology to be used by bad actors, however, one can only imagine the amount of damage this could do if the technology becomes more advanced, and falls into the hands of authoritarian States. These States may also have more resources available to them to utilize the technology over activists.
None the less, the key takeaway is that live streaming as a social tool for engagement and exercising democratic participation is an important step forward for millions of people around the world. I myself certainly hope to see a wider abundance of research into live streaming and social justice issues in the future. STEM is an important part of the literature on live streaming, however, there is a lack of discussion about how STEM can solve social issues surrounding live streaming. It would perhaps be nice to see more research into free applications for human rights defenders that would allow encrypted HLS or SRT streams to be shared to platforms similar to Witness’s Media Lab. This would mean that Human Rights NGOs can archive content before it is taken down from social media platforms. It would also allow the human rights defenders to target and engage directly with a community of advocates. It would be a shame to have the scholarship and research become solely based on the latency or quality aspects of the technology. Live streaming provides people with the tools to exercise their rights and be part of a community, and that is ultimately what should be championed.