Social media has ushered in a new era of accountability in which ordinary people are emboldened by smartphones and social media to document the world around them, from the events they witness to the lived experiences that define their lives. At the same time, ubiquitous cameras and the pursuit of viral hits has normalized the idea of sharing not only our own lives with the world, but those of people around us who have no idea they are being recorded, let alone consent to having their experiences livestreamed to the entire planet. In some cases this sharing can actually endanger lives, such as when bystanders zoom in on the faces of anti-government protesters or those marching for LGBTQ or women’s rights in countries in which such rights are greatly restricted. Should social media platforms institute new rules requiring model releases and proof of consent when it comes to sharing imagery, especially of non-news events?
The Web has profoundly upended myriad societal norms, including those around consent and sharing. In the gatekept era, publication and broadcast were controlled by professional organizations that adhered to legal standards and ethical norms. A newspaper would run an image only after assessing its provenance and legal status and obtaining rights from the photographer and potentially consent from those depicted, depending on circumstances. The decision to publish a given image was a balance between its newsworthiness and the harm such publication could do to those depicted in it, sometimes requiring blurring faces or cropping an image to remove identifying detail if such information could lead to harm against its subjects.
In the social era, all such considerations have gone out the window in pursuit of viral fame. The very concept of copyright and permission is antithetical to social platforms where memes routinely incorporate copyright content and sharing of copyrighted material is done without any consideration for rights or permissions. When it comes to citizen-produced imagery and video, model releases and even verbal permission are almost non-existent.
The end result is a world in which everyone carries what amounts to an internet-connected camera that can instantly share images with the entire planet.
The problem is that societal etiquette has not quite caught up with technology. Like young children that have not been taught how to behave, today’s smartphone-equipped adults believe it is their right to photograph or record anyone anywhere and share that interaction with the world, regardless of whether it has anything to do with them or is newsworthy in any way.
See someone with an unusual outfit shopping at a discount store? Post a photo of them to social media for ridicule. See an elderly person trip and fall? Don’t rush to help them, pull out your phone and broadcast their injuries to the world. See someone being assaulted right in front of you? Don’t intervene to stop it, just livestream the assault to the entire world to ensure they are victimized forever. Sadly, these scenarios represent real life today.
We’ve stopped being fellow human beings going about our lives as part of a shared community. Instead we are all living a reality show, wary that at any moment a total stranger might choose to share our private life with the entire world in the pursuit of viral fame and possible fortune.
The idea that consent is no longer required when photographing or recording someone and broadcasting them to the world has unfortunately expanded from the public space to our private spaces behind closed doors.
Revenge pornography and other non-consensually shared imagery has become commonplace online in part because of this shift in societal views towards consent that view permission as no longer necessary.
Putting this all together, for some reason society increasingly views it as acceptable to snap a photograph of a stranger on the street without their knowledge and share with the world or capture intimate imagery of a partner without their knowledge or consent and share with the planet. Whereas in the past these kinds of actions were viewed as the actual criminal actions they may represent, today they are frighteningly viewed by a growing portion of the population as not only acceptable, but simply today’s digital reality.
We desperately need new societal norms and standards around permission and consent when it comes to sharing imagery online before today’s consent-free sharing becomes permanent.
In the end, the removal of consent from the digital world reminds us that not all of the changes wrought by the Web have been for good and that the burden of these changes often disproportionately fall upon society’s most vulnerable.