Tag Archives: social media

The Power of Images

Every so often, for one reason or another, someone suggests that the flood of shocking images we see may damage our ability to feel empathy. It’s an argument which is particularly popular in relation to images of fictional violence when explanations and excuses for violent actions are being sought but there’s also the question of whether the images presented to us by news media just desensitise us, making us care less rather than making us violent.

After cameras and film cameras were first invented they were often used for war photography, bringing the reality of war into the fashionable salons. War artists can produce extremely powerful images but photography is more immediate and a more trusted way of capturing the imagery of war, although it would be naive to ignore the use of photography for propaganda. Of course we know that photos can be faked but on the whole photos, and later films, are their own monument which keep history alive. There’s no hiding from reality and pretending that these aren’t real people. Without films of concentration camps could we really even believe that people did that to other people? They turn numbers of dead so high that we can barely comprehend them into real people. There’s front line footage which does the same, turning millions of military deaths into millions of dead people.

So much has changed since the early days of photography. I always think of the Viet Nam photo of a group of people running from a napalm attack, with a naked child in the foreground as some kind of turning point where photo journalism got rawer and politically more honest. I decided not to include the photo here but if it doesn’t immediately spring to l mind, you can see it on Wikipedia. And then eventually, after years of tv footage and the switch to colour photos in print, came digital and the availability of images and films streamed online. And then came another event too huge for our minds to process it as real. On September 11, I got back from court to find an email from another trainee with a link. I clicked on it and thought “so what? Another disaster film. Why does she think I’d be interested?” Even once I realised what I was seeing, my mind couldn’t wrap itself around it. Yet later, when the decision was made to publish a photo of an person falling through the air, the horror was humanised. I’ll never forget that photo. For a lot of people it’s the symbol of the human suffering that took place in the Twin Towers. It was a heartwrenching illustration of people who had had all hope stolen from them and realised the only control they had left over their lives lay in the power to decide the manner and timing of their own death. It’s strange. The photo is indelibly etched into my memory so I was surprised to come across an article called The Most Famous 9-11 Photograph No-one Has Seen. Initially, I thought the photo had crossed a line too. Now I see it differently. Now it’s not disrespectful. I see the pathos and think it’s right that we have an image which brings home the real loss that day. On 9/11 this year Twitter was full of businesses tweeting 9/11 themed special offers so I’d say we’ve never needed The Falling Man more. The article is an interesting one and makes another interesting point. 9/11 was only 12 years ago but people didn’t have camera phones and there was no Twitter. Fast forward to last year’s Sandy storm and suddenly instagram and Twitter were full of photos of empty shelves in shops and people taking selfies in darkened homes. If you give people cameras they won’t always record the profound for posterity. Still, images and videos taken by private individuals can add to our understanding of events and even have evidentiary value. An example which springs to mind is the death of Ian Tomlinson in London. They can also confuse things and result in the spread of misinformation, as we saw after the Boston bombing.

The most powerful images of war, terrorist attacks and accidents are the ones which show us a human face. The same could be said of natural disasters. Show a trail of devastation and it’s not quite comprehensible, not quite real. Show the people caught up in it and that changes. People are programmed to relate best to individual stories. We feel more empathy for identifiable people than we do for numbers. I’m sure there are other sources for this but Dan Ariely discussed it in Upside of Irrationality and pointed out that charities show individuals who have been or can be helped by them in their advertising because they know that statistics and generalisations don’t engage people who see the adverts. This clip’s a short discussion of the theory.

The grind of horror seems to keep growing, image after image. Stills and video footage of man made and natural disasters taken with mobiles day after day. It sometimes seems like there are no limits any more. A few years back a local paper here had to apologise after publishing a photo (taken with a camera phone) of a dismembered body at Stevenage train station after someone died on the tracks. Have we become immune? Have images lost the power to shock? There has been more than enough horror to go round recently and that’s what got me thinking about all of this. It got me thinking about how images are delivered to us and whether the medium we see them on affects our response.

In August someone I follow suggested following Patrick Kingsley for his coverage of what was happening in Egypt. It was a general suggestion – he didn’t say it to me specifically. I did what he suggested. I looked at Patrick Kingsley’s profile page. Then I opened the photos. Then I sat with tears rolling down my face. I could only stand to look at a few photos before I had to stop. In a strange way, I’m glad images still have the power to shock me that much but a few days later the Syrian chemical attack was on the tv news. Children were writhing, dying and zipped into body bags on screen. I didn’t feel nothing. I felt pity, anger but I didn’t have the same visceral response. Go back in time to another image from Syria: I think it was just before Christmas, after Sandyhook, when many people were tweeting about both things. Simon Ricketts shared a photo on Twitter of a girl in a hospital. Her head was bandaged, at least one of each of her arms and legs was too – the arm was in a cast. There was blood – deep grazes? And she was grinning. I can’t remember what he said in the tweet. I think it was a dig (although probably mildly put because he’s a nice tweeter) comparing her joy, and bravery, to someone else but it’d take forever to find it again. That photo, another Syrian child, hit me hard, hard enough to mention it again now months later. Is there a difference in how images affect me based on the way I receive them? Photos on Twitter are potentially more graphic than tv but not by much these days. An alternative explanation occurred to me. TV is a place of horrors. Even newspaper front pages contain expected horror but a mobile phone? A mobile phone is so much more than a place to look at news. It contains our personal photos and allows us into others’. It holds our families, friends, lovers and pets. It holds scenes of beauty that we snapped in an instant. Through apps like Twitter, Facebook and instagram we share each other’s moments. To some extent, at some internal level, I think a mobile is a “safe” place. It’s like having a photo album with us all the time. Maybe this makes what we see on them more personal somehow. And if it does, I’d have to say that’s a good thing.

Anonymity gives people a voice

There’s been a lot of talk about anonymous social media accounts being used for all the wrong reasons in the UK* recently. It’s easy to overlook all the people who choose anonymity without malice. I don’t tweet anonymously so I can troll people, let alone send abusive or threatening tweets. In fact, I actively avoid getting into rows on Twitter. I challenge the lies, hypocrisy, stupidity and facileness of David Cameron and George Osborne directly from time to time but that’s about it. I criticise policies, parties, people, media outlets and companies but don’t directly attack people.

I blog and tweet anonymously because I market legal services through the internet under my real name. I’m not ashamed of anything I say on Twitter or here – I’m just being myself – but if a prospective client googles me, what are they going to think about my being left of Labour? I don’t do much good in this world but I try and I can only try if I can, yes fine if you want to put it that way, hide behind a mask. In theory my political opinions shouldn’t matter to clients but the reality is rather different once they’re actually out there. Don’t ask, don’t tell is safer. What would the prospective client think about the dirty jokes, sweariness, occasional giggly drunk tweets or early morning pre-coffee tweets? Or the posts here on chronic pain? Would it make them uncomfortable dealing with me? Would I want to deal with the potential for being pitied if all the other stuff hadn’t already put them off? Anonymity allows me to be outspoken, honest and even a bit vulnerable. Without the ability to do that I would feel I have to stop saying a huge portion of what I say here and on Twitter. I wouldn’t feel free to be me anymore. My Twitter account would become a less sweary, less funny version of Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe (or a more funny, more sweary version of TV Burp). I may well stop using Twitter completely because what would be the point?

I can think of loads of great people on Twitter who don’t tweet under their real names. They inform me and others and add so much to my enjoyment of Twitter. Among other things, like me, they also tweet politically and tweet dirty jokes. Some of their late night drunk tweets are a welcome break from bad news with my morning coffee (you know who you are). I don’t know their reasons for tweeting anonymously (except in the case of parody accounts where it’s obvious) but I guess they’re similar to mine because they’re good people. They’re not out to cause misery to others. They want to be among like minded people. They want to say things they feel need to be said and which the mainstream media doesn’t say. They want to laugh too.

People may also be more willing to share their experiences on hashtags dedicated to gathering stories of racism, sexism, ablism, homophobia etc if their accounts are anonymous. Those hashtags can be a real eye opener for people who haven’t experienced whatever they’re about. If they change perspectives, the stories can change the lives of the people sharing them for the better too.

I’ve never used and have no intention of ever using ask.fm but isn’t one of the ideas behind it to ask questions users would be embarrassed to ask face to face? Surely David Cameron wouldn’t need to call for a boycott if anonymity was removed because kids would stop asking questions they’re embarrassed to have their name put to. Is that a positive outcome for those users? It could be in some cases, I suppose. I don’t really know enough about it to say but at least I’ve got the sense to admit it, unlike our fearless leader who, as one site put it
“sent his mouth ahead as an advance party, allowing his intellect and reasoning to arrive at their leisure.”

Following the vicious barrage of tweets she received, Stella Creasey MP said:
“Fifty per cent of stalking cases involve both on and offline harassment – with many perpetrators using the anonymity of the web to pursue their prey”
It’s a fair point but it also ignores another potential reason for using social media anonymously: it actually provides people with a measure of protection against online attacks shifting into the real world (not complete protection, as Old Holborn discovered when his offensive trolling backfired with all the fury of a box of semtex, but enough to make it difficult for the attacker). When you think about how serious some of the threats to high profile women who get taken seriously by the media and police have been, is it any wonder some people would rather not put information out there which could draw Twitter abusers to their home or office with barely any effort at all?

I agree that it’s important to deal with the problem of threatening and abusive tweets and cyber bullying on a range of sites but, even if enforcing a ban on anonymity wouldn’t throw up technical and organisational problems, I don’t believe it could possibly be a proportionate response to the problem.
If I could only tweet under my real name I would indirectly lose the ability to say what I believe through the law of unintended consequences. A lot of good people I know through Twitter (and ones I don’t know yet) would too. As ever the test of convictions is whether you apply them universally and there are also people on Twitter whose politics I despise but who also have the right to free speech, provided they aren’t breaking laws against inciting hatred and violence. Some of them may tweet anonymously due to a combination of fear of a backlash from other users and fear for their jobs.

A lot of people participated in the Twitter Silence recently. A lot of people say that online abuse, threats and bullying silence the people they’re aimed at. If anonymity was to be banned on Twitter voices of dissent and people who are just connected with other people without ever causing harm to anyone would be silenced by default and an important part of Twitter really would go silent, not for a day but for good.

* I’m aware of steps to supress use of social media in other countries of course but the reasons are different and the arguments against it are already being widely made. That said, anything the UK Government does or says to restrict the use of social media and the internet leaves a tiny crack for a government in a repressive country to stick a jimmy in with the argument “the UK has its values and social order. It takes steps to protect them. We are also taking steps to protect our country’s values and social order. The UK Government should support us in this.”

Keeping in touch

Someone told me to keep in touch. I thought I knew what that meant but then I thought again. I’m in touch with hundreds of people each day through Twitter. I tweet whatever random thoughts pop into my head at any given moment. Like this blog, the tweets can be serious, ranty or juvenile. They’re often sarcastic or facetious. I tweet and often one or more of my followers (or their followers etc) will respond in one way or another. Of course, I read other people’s tweets so I’m in touch with them that way too and I reply to some. One of the wonderful things about Twitter is when someone follows you for something like a political tweet and then you discover the various other common interests you have later. We share things like links to information and songs too and share thoughts and experiences by linking to blogs.

Within my wider Twitter bubble there are quite a lot of people I talk the toot with regularly (I hate the word banter and re-read Robert Rankin’s Brentford trilogy recently, ok? One of these days I’ll probably end up using #talkingthetoot instead of #forcryingoutloudIwasbeingsarcastic). Just talking crap to pass the time. By the way, it’s reassuring to discover I’m not the only lawyer who snickers like a kid at finding the typo “tits” for “its” in a law report or who finds it hilarious that someone registered the trademark “booty call” (yeah – I searched the IPO myself to turn up that little nugget).

I also tweet @ people like George Osborne and David Cameron sometimes, often taking the piss out of their tweets (see To David Cameron: a note on Twitter for my rant on Cameron’s use of Twitter by the way) but I somehow doubt they think I’m keeping in touch. Mind you, they might because they sure as hell don’t seem to understand how out of touch they are.

Many people on Twitter use it for political commentary and activism. Anyone who reads this blog or follows me on Twitter knows I’m an unapologetic leftie. Often it seems like only the right has a voice (is there anyone left in my Twitter bubble who doesn’t know Nigel Farage has been on Question Time 14 times since 2009?) and Twitter is reassuring in that it shows that the left may not be popular with the media but there are a lot of us out there. When faced with things like the utterly absurd alternate Queen’s Speech Private Members Bill or GCHQ’s mass surveillance or the smear tactics used against Stephen Lawrence’s family, it makes the world slightly brighter to see other people on Twitter raging against them, to see that people care.

Sometimes I’m put in touch with people I’d rather not know exist. I find myself reading some abhorrent stuff retweeted into my timeline, most often from racists and rape apologists – my usually untweeted opinions of which are a. deny it all you like but yes, you are racist b. if you’re a rape apologist, the statistically astronomical number of rapes committed makes me believe you’re probably also a rapist. The purpose of those retweets is to name and shame. I resist the temptation to start yelling at the original tweeter but some ugly things get said on Twitter and some of the reactions can be nearly as ugly. I’ve been lucky so far. I’ve had tweets from UKIP supporters and Thatcherites in response to some of my tweets but they’ve always been pretty polite. Other people aren’t so lucky. That’s the unpleasant side of keeping in touch.

Twitter addiction also affects the way I want to use other electronic forms of communication. I know I’m not the only one (because Twitter told me so) who sometimes wishes I could just favourite emails, especially business ones, just to say “yeah. I’ve read it and it’s all good but I don’t have anything to say in reply”. I also want to put gestures in texts but if I put *shrugs* or something like that in a text to a non Twitter user, they won’t get that it’s just the emotional code we squeeze into our 140 characters on Twitter. It’d just seem weird.

The common theme is how easy it is to keep in touch with other people and how much we know about each other. We give a hell of a lot of ourselves in our tweets. The person who asked me to keep in touch has no idea that I’ve twice gone to put a second sock over the first one over the past few months. Twitter does (this thoroughly blonde fact alone is a good enough reason to keep my Twitter account anonymous) . He doesn’t know what music I’m listening to. Twitter does. He doesn’t know how filthy my sense of humour can get. The little corner of Twitter that lives in Kentish Town and Tufnell Park does. Come to think of it, anyone who uses the #bbcqt can probably figure that one out too. He doesn’t know my proudest moment this year was getting a compliment from the Bill Hicks Twitter account (run by his brother) for The Day Justice Died. Twitter does because I retweeted that compliment with utter joy – a compliment from a dead stand up comic I revere. Hell yeah I had to tell Twitter that. Come to think of it, he doesn’t know that my second proudest moment this year was my policy contribution of “hunt Tories with badgers” being selected for Mark Thomas’ second People’s Manifesto by my fellow audience members in Stevenage. Yeah. You’ve guessed it. I’d tweeted it before we even got out of the building. (Update 8/7/13: that more entertaining moment was supplanted when my post on the impact of inflation on foodbank usage got quoted in the Guardian, even if the quote did come from the soundbite paragraph at the end. Every so often posts can strike a chord and spread. When the serious ones do, it’s a good feeling to know I’m contributing something to the debate on important issues that matter to me.)

So much random information, so many thoughts and opinions and conversations and emotions (although the second rule of Twitter after never steal a joke is never tweet something which requires the response “u ok hun” and the third rule in my bubble is don’t abuse the English language by saying “u ok hun”, it’s ok to openly mention the really painful things like death, sickness, divorce and unemployment and my Twitter bubble is a compassionate place for the people going through those things), all being thrown into a well for people, many of whom don’t even know each others’ real names. I mean, come on. There are people out there who tweet photos of every single meal they eat (this becomes newsworthy if the meal is #sausagenews thanks to the more than a little bonkers @kentishtowncats who’ve sucked me into their vortex of weird). Twitter’s so easy and people I do know in real life can and do check in to see what rubbish I’m spouting on about at any given moment. A year ago I wasn’t on Twitter but I drank the Kool Aid and now I’ve forgotten how people who aren’t addicted to social media keep in touch out there in real life. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that you don’t share all the random stuff that pops into your head but where’s the line between that and saying nothing at all these days? What’s important enough to share? When? Maybe we should just give everyone a Twitter account just so I don’t have to think about this stuff.

Spam reporting as a weapon

Free speech. Always an emotive topic. Two incidents came up on my Twitter timeline. Tom Pride apparently had a post marked as spam by Facebook on the word of someone working for Job Centre Plus. His post was a satirical dig at Atos and the DWP. Scriptonite Daily also found herself marked as spam for posting about Artist Taxi Driver’s protest against the privatisation of the NHS.

I see the spam button and other complaints mechanisms as being like the button which fires the nuclear missiles. I’ve acted for clients wrongly reported to eBay and Amazon by vindictive competitors. I’ve also acted for genuine victims of intellectual property infringement and for providers of content services and forums. The balance of rights on the internet is a difficult one but in many cases, the provider takes the word of the complainant and the burden of proof is on the person complained of. Providers of internet services (confusing terminology alert: not isp’s) are scared of the consequences if they don’t act swiftly to remove content which is complained about. They’re scared, for example, of claims for intellectual property infringement by companies as big as they are and for defamation. They’ve even got cause to fear criminal sanctions: directors of Google Italia were prosecuted after a video of a young disabled boy being attacked was posted on Youtube and not removed quickly enough once people started to complain. They (inadvertently) published a hate crime. That case is still rolling on, years after the video was posted, hanging over people’s heads. They were convicted, they successfully appealed but as of this month their Global Privacy Counsel blogged that the Italian prosecutor is now taking the appeal up to the Supreme Court. They’re not wrong to fear those things. Cover your ass is bound to be the mantra in back rooms, no matter what sites might say in public about the importance of free speech and the sharing of content.

A swift peek at Google showed Facebook has quite a track record of censoring supposed spam. British victims of the policy may be slightly reassured to learn Americans have been complaining about this for some time. One man wasn’t even allowed to publish a list of Obama’s achievements during his first term in office. How the hell is that reassuring? Because Christians on the right are out there complaining about the same thing. It seems Facebook has suffered from a hyperactive filter in the past, with content being automatically marked as spam. It also seems that Facebook is an equal opportunities censor of content which is manually complained about. Left complaining about right, right complaining about left, government employee complaining about satirist. Round and round we go. What do we expect Facebook to do other than follow the time honoured tradition of covering its own ass.

What’s absurd about the situation is the concept that something one person doesn’t like can be classified as spam. Privacy laws matter, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a world of difference between the prevention of direct contact with other users to sell them things they don’t want and an individual posting a link to their own blog on their own wall. If someone you know likes it and it ends up in your news feed, that’s not spam. It’s a properly functioning social media site. If what’s written offends you so much you decide to unfriend the person whose “like” brought it to your attention, fine. Do that. Ditto if your “friend” posts a link to content you don’t like by a third party on their wall. This is precisely why complaints are like that big red button though. It’s so easy for the complainant. Where does it stop? How far do Facebook and others allow rival political factions to go before they have to step in and pull a Herod? Imagine applying the six degrees of separation rule to this problem. I complain about you. You ask a friend to complain about me. I ask a friend to complain about them and so on and so on until we reach the point of mutually assured destruction. Only bland, beige content featuring people’s cats and babies would be left. My personal opinion is that spam reporters should grow the fuck up. Spam reporters who report on behalf of their employers without their knowledge or consent (particularly when that employer is a state entity) need training on what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour because, when it’s a state agency being dragged into the web of pettiness that is spam reporting, the situation becomes more dangerous. It interferes with free speech. It’s a cheap, nasty and utterly inappropriate shortcut to shut people up when it wouldn’t be possible to get an injunction to do so. In cover your ass terms, Job Centre Plus should consider whether they want theirs hanging in the wind if a blogger claims they’re responsible for the actions of their employees on social media like Facebook.

To David Cameron, a note on Twitter

Dear David

I am not a supporter of you, your party or your coalition government but I hope you will consider that my advice, while hardly altruistic, serves your interests as well as mine. It’s a simple idea and, I believe, an uncontroversial one: stop using Twitter. It demeans the office you hold to tweet in the way you do. Some politicians tweet their own views on a range of issues. Those who do so successfully do so through their choice of issues to tweet about and through the language and tone they use to deliver their message. The thing is, David, that most of your tweets are pointless to the point of causing offence. You are neither a minor celebrity nor a member of the royal family. You are a prime minister presiding over a truly dreadful period of British history. I’m not writing to debate your policies and their success and support, or the lack thereof. I’m writing to tell you that I take tweets of you popping in on businesses, hospitals and troops and switching on Christmas lights as an insult. I want a leader (even if I didn’t vote for his party), an individual with gravitas, not a puffed up popinjay. I don’t want to read a tweet suggesting that one visit to one hospital ward is any kind of reasonable measure of your policies on the NHS.

The rumour is that you don’t tweet yourself so telling you not to waste your own time may be futile. Instead, I am asking you not to insult the public’s intelligence or the level of fear, difficulty and sheer bloody outrage the public feels when faced with a triple dip. People fear for their jobs (if they still have them), they are making tough decisions on a daily basis while trying to juggle rising prices of food, transport, energy, insurance etc. Some are on frozen wages. Some are still under pay cuts. Many are struggling to cope with increased workloads as their businesses (or, indeed public sector departments) have shrunk. Those without jobs are doubtless terribly concerned at present, particularly the disabled. Many are affected by floods and those lucky ones who aren’t have still felt the blow of a year of tempestuous weather.

In addition to outrage at government policies among many, there is more universal outrage at scandal after scandal among our so-called betters. The financial services sector, print & tv media, tax avoiding corporations, energy & rail companies holding customers ransom: all have left people feeling let down.

It insults all of us when you tweet your happy little snaps of you doing things like participating in a run. You say you’re in this with us. Many don’t believe you but if you ever want to stand a chance of convincing us that you’re not fiddling while Britain drowns, whether through arrogance or ignorance, do yourself a favour. Do me and others like me a favour. Accept that you have reached too many tweets and stop.