A graphic video from a Pennsylvania man accused of beheading his father that circulated for hours on YouTube has put a spotlight yet again on gaps in social media companies’ ability to prevent horrific postings from spreading across the web.
Police said Wednesday that they charged Justin Mohn, 32, with first-degree murder and abusing a corpse after he beheaded his father, Michael, in their Bucks County home and publicized it in a 14-minute YouTube video that anyone, anywhere could see.
News of the incident — which drew comparisons to the beheading videos posted online by the Islamic State militants at the height of their prominence nearly a decade ago — came as the CEOs of Meta, TikTok and other social media companies were testifying in front of federal lawmakers frustrated by what they see as a lack of progress on child safety online. YouTube, which is owned by Google, did not attend the hearing despite its status as one of the most popular platforms among teens.
The disturbing video from Pennsylvania follows other horrific clips that have been broadcast on social media in recent years, including domestic mass shootings livestreamed from Louisville, Kentucky; Memphis, Tennessee; and Buffalo, New York — as well as carnages filmed abroad in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the German city of Halle.
Middletown Township Police Capt. Pete Feeney said the video in Pennsylvania was posted at about 10 p.m. Tuesday and online for about five hours, a time lag that raises questions about whether social media platforms are delivering on moderation practices that might be needed more than ever amid wars in Gaza and Ukraine, and an extremely contentious presidential election in the U.S.
“It’s another example of the blatant failure of these companies to protect us,” said Alix Fraser, director of the Council for Responsible Social Media at the nonprofit advocacy organization Issue One. “We can’t trust them to grade their own homework.”