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M50 horror: Social media giants should be held accountable for removing gruesome images online, warns cyber-psychologist

'There is nothing newsworthy, social or even civilised about the sharing of horrific and tragic imagery'

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Tragic: A garda examines the scene of the fatal collision at the northbound Finglas interchange of the M50. Photo: Collins

Tragic: A garda examines the scene of the fatal collision at the northbound Finglas interchange of the M50. Photo: Collins

Colin Keegan

Tragic: A garda examines the scene of the fatal collision at the northbound Finglas interchange of the M50. Photo: Collins

Social media giants should be made accountable for "cleaning up"’ and removing grossly offensive images online in the same way oil companies were made responsible for cleaning up spills that pollute the environment, according to a leading cyber-psychologist.

Dr Mary Aiken, an associate professor at University College Dublin, writes in the Sunday Independent today that social technology companies need to be held accountable for the effects of the distribution of extreme and gory content.

She was responding to the controversy caused by the sharing of shocking images on social media of a fatal traffic accident on the M50 on Thursday in which Dublin woman Jackie Griffin lost her life.

Viewing traumatic images can lead to adverse psychological consequences, such as emotional distress and depression. Children are particularly vulnerable, she said.

Online connectivity has also normalised various forms of “degenerate voyeurism”.

“There is nothing newsworthy, social or even civilised about the sharing of horrific and tragic imagery,” she said.

Several calls have been made in recent days for changes in the law to curb the sharing of such images.

Culture Minister Josepha Madigan said social media contempt of court laws being debated in the Dail could be extended to make it illegal to share images from fatal crashes.

“The Contempt of Court bill obviously has a lot of protections for free speech but certainly if it could be demonstrated to the court that the posting of images could prejudice the outcome of future court proceedings then it could order suppression and take down orders,” she said.

She referred to a legal action in the US taken by the parents of fatal crash victim Nikki Catsouras after photographs of her body ended up online after being shared by police officers in 2006.

The family were awarded damages after successfully claiming the sharing of the photographs was not free speech.

Fianna Fail TD James Lawless said the M50 incident highlighted the need for the immediate introduction of a digital commissioner with the powers to order social media companies to take down content.

“There is virtually no state agency currently responsible for the social media platforms and we have seen repeatedly that self-regulation does not work,” he said.

“The proposed merger of Messenger, WhatsApp and Facebook is also worrying, along with the data sharing this integration would likely involve.

“Whilst the debate locally has focused on Facebook, situations like Myanmar and India have seen incitement to unrest and serious violence through content on WhatsApp.

“It’s likely why a restriction was recently introduced to limit content forwarding. We have to remember these platforms thrive on clickbait and perhaps shock value is of greater appeal than proper moderation,” he added.

Professor Mary Aiken, psychologist and author of The Cyber Effect which revealed how human behaviour changes online, stated in today’s Sunday Independent that little or nothing has been done to address the problem a full five years after the publication of a report by the Irish Government Internet Content Governance Advisory Group which highlighted the problems.

“I am working with Senator Joan Freeman on a Children’s Digital Protection Bill which has successfully passed second stage in the Seanad. The aim of our bill is to regulate legal but harmful age-inappropriate content online by way of takedown enforcement procedure,” said Dr Aiken.

She said the availability of extreme and violent content online has somewhat normalised the viewing and sharing of this material.

But viewing traumatic images can come with adverse psychological consequences, such as emotional distress and depression. Children are particularly vulnerable, she said.

Online connectivity has also normalised various forms of “degenerate voyeurism, dignifying it with terms such as social networking — there is nothing newsworthy, social or even civilised about the sharing of horrific and tragic imagery”, she said.

The “social technologies” that facilitated distribution of distressing content should be investigated, she said.

Online Editors