Facebook Live is a live video streaming feature on the social media platform Facebook. It enables any Facebook user, via their individual profile or business page, to broadcast live to followers.
Problems and Purpose
A live video streaming feature on the social media platform, Facebook Live enables users to broadcast live to their followers; the tool is often used for marketing purposes and by celebrities, but may also be used as a public engagement tool to provide information and engage a large audience, and has been used to stream political debates and rallies .
Facebook Live allows a live broadcast of up to four hours, and the video stays up on the site afterwards so people can watch the recorded version. The video can be removed by the uploader or by Facebook if it is deemed to break guidelines. The broadcaster can also customise their audience to some extent.
Facebook Live can be used for a variety of purposes. As discussed below, it has been used to enhance visibility of state or police persecution and help activists spread messages. As a public engagement tool, it can be used by government agencies or other public organisations to engage with a large audience.
Governments and public sector organisations have used Facebook Live to stream press conferences and events, take an audience ‘behind the scenes’ of an agency’s work and get across important messages .
The precise aims of a broadcast will vary in practice, and for a government agency may include:
- Provide information about an important issue
- Stream proceedings from an event like a public meeting or conference
- Engage constituents who might not usually attend a public meeting 
- Initiate a discussion about a specific issue
- Show an audience how an agency works day-to-day, show ‘behind the scenes or help ‘humanise’ the work of an organisation 
Facebook has sought maintain an ‘apolitical’ stance as a platform, stating that any politician may use Facebook and Facebook Live. This question was raised after the platform hosted Barack Obama for a Town Hall Meeting . At this time, Facebook Live was not available to all users and Facebook itself hosted live broadcasts.
Origins and Development
Facebook itself has been used as a platform and resource for participation, protest and organisation, most notably during the Arab Spring uprisings as in the February 20 Movement in Morocco, and by the Occupy Movement. In these contexts, Facebook and other social media platforms provide a way to organise and coordinate mass demonstrations and a way for activists to communicate. However, it is worth noting that video uploads have also been a feature of these movements. During the Arab Spring, mainstream media and international journalists were often censored, and social media and video uploads became an outlet to let the rest of the world know what was happening, and for demonstrators to spread their message. Social media also enabled ‘democracy advocates’ to connect with others beyond national boundaries .
Thus, live streaming and video uploads are not necessarily new, unique to Facebook or to public engagement. Streaming of public meetings and participatory processes, as well as political debates and conferences is not unusual. For example, the South Australia Citizens’ Jury on nuclear fuel storage was filmed and videos uploaded by the state government for wider viewing.
Facebook live launched in 2016. Previously, the service had been available but not to all users . It is distinct as it is now available to all Facebook users, is embedded within the Facebook platform (previous live streaming offers were standalone applications) and has a range of tools to help manage and track broadcasts .
Live has been to used stream police violence and shootings in the United States . The streaming of videos such as the shooting of Philando Castile can be seen as making an important contribution to democratic debate and participation. These videos enhance representation of incidents that might otherwise remain hidden from public view . They thus may help raise such issues higher on the public agenda and enhance calls for the responsible authorities to be held accountable for their actions.
Live has also been used to record violent crimes as they occur, streamed by perpetrators  Facebook is unable to monitor content sufficiently as it streams, meaning that such videos can amass a large audience before they are removed.
How it Works
The audience of a Facebook Live video will be primarily self-selecting: those Facebook users who already follow the person or page broadcasting are most likely to engage. However, it is also possible that a broadcast might reach a wider audience than those already engaged or interested in the issue, as is the case with most self-selecting forms of political participation. Anecdotally, a budgetary hearing in Canada recently received a larger audience than expected for their live stream, suggesting that the audience for a Facebook Live broadcast could be broader than those who might normally be motivated to participate.
In the past, watching a video broadcast was conceived of as a passive activity . By contrast, Facebook Live enables some degree of interaction and communication. Viewers can ‘react’ to the video as it streams and the broadcaster can see and respond to these reactions in real time. ‘Reactions’ on Facebook come in the form of a set of emojis representing a limited range of emotions: like, love, angry, sad and laughing. Viewers can also comment on the video and interact with each other as well the broadcaster being able to respond to comments and questions during the broadcast.
Facebook provides guidelines for those wishing to successfully use Facebook Live in order to engage an audience. These include letting people know in advance when you will be live, ensuring a good internet connection, enticing viewers with engaging descriptions, and signposting others to where they can watch the video afterwards.
The extent to which communication and interaction actually occurs during Facebook Live broadcast is unclear. There is little research focussing on Facebook Live and whilst a number of blogs and sites enthusiastically recommend it as an important way for governments to engage better and with a wider audience [3, 2], significantly more research is needed to evaluate the extent to which this form of communication is effective.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Whilst there is a considerable body of research on the use of Facebook and social media and democratic activism, particularly regarding the Arab Spring, evidence is less forthcoming on Facebook Live specifically. It is therefore unclear what kind of influence Facebook Live broadcasts might have on public decisions, public debate, community awareness or engagement with government. There is little to no established empirical evidence available to fully evaluate Facebook Live as a tool for participation and engagement. However, there are some possible advantages and disadvantages that are worth considering.
Facebook is the biggest social media platform in the world – there are clearly a lot of people on Facebook . Whilst this is no guarantee of a massive audience, the way the platform works is to ‘reward engagement’ – the more people engage with content, the more other users are directed to it. This is because Facebook pages gain most likes from users when their Facebook friends like that page . Producing high quality Facebook Live broadcasts can ‘drive’ more traffic towards an organisation or individual’s page, thus growing the potential audience . This may lead to engaging a broader audience than those who might normally engage with government or public organisations – although again, greater evidence is required for this.
On the downside, despite its massive user base, the audience for Facebook Live is limited to that user base. It is not possible to view Facebook Live broadcasts without a Facebook account . This raises further questions about the type of audience reached through Facebook and Live. Matthew Crozier, founder of online deliberation platform Bang the Table, suggests that although Facebook is viewed as a way to reach a younger audience , more young people are moving away from Facebook as older generations begin to join .
Importantly, Crozier points out that Facebook favours simplistic content and style, suggesting that this might not be the best format to communicate potentially complex messages on nuanced issues. This is exacerbated by the huge amount of content on Facebook that a broadcast must compete with .
Finally, it is worth remembering that Facebook is a for-profit enterprise that uses users’ data and preferences to drive and change consumer behaviour and perhaps also political behaviour . It is therefore not a neutral space but is open to influence from advertisers that can influence how users interact and engage with Facebook Live. Ultimately, more research is needed into how this marketised environment is used as a tool for public engagement.
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