Explicit publication possible due to culture lacking empathy

Opinion: Solitary nature of our web engagement abets the erosion of the human dimension

A Facebook page endorsing the publication of the photograph was deleted, but it is difficult for online platforms to keep up with the idiocy of some of their users. Photograph: Getty Images

A Facebook page endorsing the publication of the photograph was deleted, but it is difficult for online platforms to keep up with the idiocy of some of their users. Photograph: Getty Images

Wed, Aug 21, 2013, 00:01

The rapper Eminem’s concert at Slane Castle last weekend will be remembered for one thing only: At the concert photographs were taken of a young woman engaged in a sex act and posted online.

Within hours, they spread with a velocity that only modern online communication can harness. Retweets, shares, likes, and republishing of the initial image created a dubious celebrity with her own nickname. The internet has given rise to a new form of star, but frequently, the mob-led creation of such notoriety is as much about shame as it is about fame.

Inevitably, there were questions posed about the veracity of the image, but the sharing continued across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The reaction cycle has replaced the news cycle online, so then predictably, the reaction kicked in. Some just called it grim. A debate about how the young woman and young man were being referred to ensued, with many criticising the shaming of the young woman and the virtual high-fiving of the young man. Many users derided those who were publishing it, a small show of solidarity with her feelings. But worthy debates about how the photograph should be reacted to ignored the obvious: it shouldn’t have been there to comment upon, or debate, in the first place.

For a brief period, the hashtag (a categorisation method of topics on Twitter) was trending worldwide. The photograph, its online publication and surrounding debate, spilled over into online opinion pieces, newspaper websites and radio programmes. Back on Twitter and Facebook, users spreading the photograph joshed around. As social media platforms woke up to the incident, users reported their Instagram accounts suspended after they posted the image.

A Facebook page with thousands of “likes” endorsing the publication of the photograph was deleted. Twitter began erasing the multiple republishing of the image. But it was too late. Remarks from a Garda spokesman that the media should respect the privacy of those involved and their families felt quaint.

Disregard for repercussions
It is hard to imagine the personal devastation this has brought to a young woman. And clearly no one who shared the image paused to think about the distress it would cause. The irresponsibility involved in how we disseminate information online often borders on the reckless. An assumed and acquired entitlement to opinion based on merely being able to publish one, rather than deserving one rooted in fact, provides a platform to those who would be shot down in real life conversations, even in the most rudimentary forums of bar stool banter or phone-in radio shows. But the urge to share information is too great now, and the disregard for repercussions indicates a much larger problem.

The questions one should pose before remarking on the behaviour of another, ‘what if that was you?’ or ‘how would you feel?’, are becoming sidelined in a culture that values participation over empathy. The Greek chorus that could form any part of an online conscience is impossible to hear over the din of social media noise. And the reason for this is the solitary manner in which we engage with the web. We share images and publish opinions online when we are alone. We cannot hear the protests of others or see the discomfort in their faces that we would if we were passing around a hard copy of a photograph in a real life group situation.

The more we stare at screens and the less at faces, the more we erode empathy. And once the empathy is gone, and those visual cues from real life human interaction are disposed of, sharing becomes a lot easier. We don’t have to deal with seeing the tear in someone’s eye or a grimace form around their lips, or a hand put to mouth in shock. We don’t notice the quiver in their voice. We don’t hear the anger when they shout: “TAKE THAT DOWN!” because we just see the caps lock statement in a comment.

It is no surprise that people care less, because they are confronted less and less with real human emotion and the cues, ticks, indicators, movements, sounds and intonations that colour the complexities of human communication because our interactions are becoming increasingly distant. The less you care, the more you share.

The empathic link that begins with an image or video or conversation passed between friends online is increasingly diluted as more and more share, until eventually it is viewed by those who don’t even know the person involved in the first place, and therefore have absolutely no vested interest in protecting privacy, yet seemingly plenty of devious interest in passing it on for laughs.

The cruelty with which the photograph from Slane was disseminated amplified the devastation that girl must have felt. The jokes, crude frivolity and subsequent memes and name-calling show an ugly, bullying, gratuitously prurient carelessness that needs to be addressed. But this can only be done by people confronting such behaviour and by those who engage in such a blood sport examining their motivations and actions.

Focus on copyright
Online platforms are slow to react in terms of governance and regulation. Historically, many of the issues surrounding the reproduction of information online has focused on copyright. But there are bigger questions now being asked about how Twitter can clamp down on violent misogynist threats against high-profile female users, how quickly Instagram can delete the accounts of those who post pornographic material, how Ask.fm can protect young people from the devastating repercussions of bullying, how appropriately can Facebook respond to reported pages, and how comment facilities should be moderated to remove defamatory remarks.

But how can these platforms possibly keep up with the idiocy of people stretching basic human decency?