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
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.