Facebook, Shame Pages, and a Belfast Court.

Social media can be a blessing, or it can be a curse. It depends how it is used.

Someone, I don’t know who, created a ‘Spotted at’ page on Facebook for my university. It has existed for a couple of years, with the intention of being utilised by those who take photographs of their fellow -often unsuspecting -students around campus. The page has hosted photographs, snapchats, videos etc of students sleeping, doing something silly, or those students who are considered attractive or those who are considered to be a mess.People comment, respond with whatever response they see fit and often tag their friends and share the status too. More often than not, it can be quite humorous, but I do sometimes wonder if perhaps there can be that uncomfortable side.

What if someone saw that an unflattering photograph with a sarcastic message had been posted without their knowledge? What if they saw negative comments posted underneath by people they do not know, judging them solely on their appearance? What if, horror of horrors, they are tagged in said photograph and their identity revealed?

When I studied abroad in the US for a year, there was an anonymously-ran Twitter account on campus. The sole aim of which was to offer people the chance to submit their thoughts and feelings on other students. It was mostly used to praise someone’s attractiveness, and to ponder their chances of successfully asking this person out. Sometimes though, it was used to harshly critique the appearance or the style of another student. I remember that I was once referenced on the Twitter account – someone apparently thought I was attractive (!) – and I just felt more embarrassed than not. Perhaps it was a cultural difference, or perhaps I just didn’t know how to accept a compliment posted anonymously on social media by someone who spotted me on campus. Nevertheless, I was fortunate – I was not a victim of a mocking post, or had a photograph shared around.

Facebook, Twitter, YikYak… Social media offers the unparalleled opportunity to connect and engage with a wide audience. But it also offers the opportunity to twist that into someone spiteful, hurtful and harmful. I have witnessed trolling, bullying and the unwanted sharing of information and/or photographs over the years.I have also witnessed the complaints of those who have fallen victim to these.

Which is why the story regarding Facebook and unwanting sharing of photographs from last year is so interesting.

In September 2016, Facebook lost a legal bid to prevent a 14-year-old girl from suing the company over a naked picture of her that was posted on a ‘shame page’ on the site as an act of revenge. A High Court judge in Belfast rejected Facebook’s attempt to have the claim by the girl struck out.

The girl – who cannot be named for legal reasons as she is underage – is also taking legal action against the man who allegedly posted the picture in what lawyers claim is the first case of its kind in the UK. She is seeking damages for misuse of private information, negligence and breach of the Data Protection Act.

The girl’s legal team argued that Facebook is liable for a photograph which was allegedly blackmailed from the girl, before being posted on Facebook without her permission. The legal team further submitted that Facebook had the power to block any re-publication by using a tracking process to identify the image. Her photograph was said to have been posted on a so-called shame page on Facebook several times between November 2014 and January 2016.

The court heard it should have been a “red line” issue for the company.

Facebook’s legal team argued the claim for damages should be dismissed, saying the company always took down the photograph when it was notified, and had done what it could. They relied on a European directive that they claimed provides protection from having to monitor a vast amount of online material for what is posted on one page. The EU law provides that social media sites are immune from liability for content as long as they react quickly to complaints, under a so-called “notice and takedown” mechanism.

The Belfast High Court judge however dismissed Facebook’s arguments.

The case against Facebook and the man who it is claimed originally posted the picture will now move to full trial in Belfast at a later date.

The case is thought to be the first of its kind in the world, and could potentially set a major precedent about whether social media sites are liable for what is posted on them. This has provoked alarm among tech companies, concerned about the responsibility that they might have to carry over submitted and hosted data, along with censorship, and protection.

It has been said that this legal challenge could open the floodgates for other civil claims, according to lawyers who work with victims of revenge pornography. By October 2016, the case has already resulted in victims of revenge pornography seeking advice about whether they too could have grounds for legal action, according to Paul Tweed, media lawyer and senior partner at the law firm Johnsons.

Facebook changed its community standards in 2012 to crack down on revenge pornography and “sextortion”, banning nude images when they are reported. It also works with charities to target paedophile networks and on “think before you share” campaigns, said a Facebook spokeswoman when discussing the legal case from Belfast.

Perhaps the issue is not so much the social media websites, but rather their users.

You see, even if Facebook and other social media sites started proactively filtering potentially distressing images, by far the greater problem lies in revenge pornography and non-specific pornography sites – established, ran and visited by users. Revenge porn websites provide a haven for users to download photographs, and send hate. Perhaps the focus of attention should be towards these sites, and to target those who establish them?

Regardless, it is evident that social media can be abused and twisted. We can always ensure to take care on our social media accounts, and be mindful of our friends and connections when we post photographs and comments.

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