A national coalition of community activists is demanding that Facebook disclose information about its compliance with a law enforcement request to remove videos of a standoff recorded by a woman who was killed by Baltimore County police officers this month.
During the Aug. 1 standoff in her Randallstown apartment, Korryn Gaines began posting videos of the encounter to Facebook — where friends and followers urged her not to comply with officers’ demands. Police eventually shot her as she cradled her 5-year-old son in one arm and a shotgun in the other.
At the request of the Baltimore County Police Department, Facebook deactivated the 23-year-old woman’s account to take down the videos posted during the five-hour ordeal.
“Facebook broadcasting is one of the most powerful tools in the world for documenting police brutality and raising awareness of the scale and systemic nature of police misconduct,” a coalition of 41 civil rights and consumer advocacy organizations wrote this week in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “If your company agrees to censor people’s accounts at the request of police — thereby allowing the police to control what the public sees on Facebook — then it is part of the problem.”
Baltimore County police officials said they filed a request with Facebook for exigency deactivation of Gaines’ account as the standoff unfolded “because of a barricade situation involving an armed subject with a child.”
Gaines’ son was shot in the arm during the standoff.
“Gaines was posting video of the operation, and followers were encouraging her not to comply with negotiators’ requests that she surrender peacefully,” police said in a statement issued after the standoff. “This was a serious concern; successful negotiations often depend on the negotiators’ ability to converse directly with the subject, without interference or distraction during extremely volatile conditions.”
The Baltimore County Police Department indicated that Gaines’ social media accounts were not deleted but that the posts were preserved as evidence.
But to activists, the deactivation of the account in the midst of the unfolding event was akin to “shielding police misbehavior from public scrutiny and stifling free speech,” said Nicole Carty, a spokeswoman for SumOfUs, a global consumer watchdog group.
From July 2015 to December, Facebook received 855 law enforcement requests for emergency disclosures or disclosures without delay because of a risk of serious physical harm or death, according to information that the social network makes public as part of its regular disclosure of requests. Those requests targeted 1,223 accounts and were approved about 73 percent of the time.
The number of emergency disclosure requests — as well as the percentage approved by Facebook — has increased gradually since the company began providing the disclosures in 2013.
Activists asked Facebook to clarify its position on collaboration with law enforcement to censor users’ data and videos and to explain the exact actions it took to shut down and restore Gaines’ account.
Facebook officials did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment about the request.
Activists credit social media with supplying protesters, including those associated with Black Lives Matter, with an uncensored platform to disperse their messages and document police action.
“But when companies like Facebook compromise the integrity of such platforms, they are burying our community’s stories and potentially participating in police cover-ups that perpetuate this cycle of violence,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change. “If Facebook truly believes that black lives matter, it should stop censoring users at the request of police.”