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Brian O'Reilly: 'People sharing graphic photos from a fatal accident shows social media's ugly heart of darkness'

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Too easy: Popular social networks such as WhatsApp and Facebook are on most people’s phones, putting photo sharing just a tap away

Too easy: Popular social networks such as WhatsApp and Facebook are on most people’s phones, putting photo sharing just a tap away

Too easy: Popular social networks such as WhatsApp and Facebook are on most people’s phones, putting photo sharing just a tap away

There was a time in social media's infancy when 'going viral' usually meant sharing a video of a puppy playing with a kitten, or a 'flash mob' of people dancing in a train station.

However, as social media enters its teenage years, it seems it is entering a similarly tumultuous phase in its life.

Videos of a sexual nature have gone viral in recent years; private moments made public through the voracious appetite for content in all its forms, from anyone with internet access.

But the sharing of graphic images from a fatal crash on the M50 this week show we have crossed a very dark line in what we deem appropriate for social media.

On Thursday, gardaí were forced to take the unprecedented step of appealing directly to the public to stop sharing the graphic images.

On social media and messaging apps, it would seem the clamour for likes and reactions trumps basic human decency. It isn't just the person who posted the footage originally, anyone who shared it or forwarded it to another person is just as guilty in compounding the misery of a grieving family.

That includes virtue-­signalling sharers - those who shared the image under the guise of feigning moral contempt for others who did so. If you clicked to share under any circumstance, you were complicit.

Just because you see something doesn't mean you should film it and certainly not publish it online for thousands of others to see.

Social media is instant and once something is posted to the internet, it is there forever. Most of us have probably posted something online which we later regretted and, depending on your age, are likely grateful your youthful indiscretions won't haunt you for the rest of your life.

Thursday's example was an extraordinary one in its context, but, regardless, one would like to think your first instinct isn't to reach for your smartphone and post footage online.

What part of social media has irrevocably damaged some people's morals that another person's death is fair game for their online content?

Social media is still very much in its infancy - the long-term effects it will have not only on our society, but our psychology, are yet to be seen.

The court of public opinion used to function when Facebook and Twitter were the main places content was shared. If a user publicly posted something insensitive, the entire world knew who did it - and it would very often result in the user being shamed into removing it.

Versions of the M50 crash photos appeared on Twitter but were quickly deleted when other users pointed out how grotesque posting them was. Self-regulation still has some worth.

WhatsApp has changed the game as users can forward on content anonymously without revealing the original source. The company recently announced it has limited the amount of times a user can forward messages to five per day, in an attempt to limit the spread of fake news. However, the limit applies to five chats, so in theory a user can forward to five groups which could combined have hundreds of recipients - and so begins a digital version of Chinese whispers.

We've already seen calls to legislate in the area, but banning people filming in public spaces verges way into police-state territory.

This is firmly a moral issue, not a legal one. And this country does not have a good history when it comes to legislating for morality.

Instead, we need to focus on how we educate and teach our children about the use of social media and the dangers and pitfalls - and remind adults that they are not exempt from responsibility in this.

The State cannot abdicate its role in education and skip straight to enforcement of potentially dangerous laws.

Irish Independent