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Lorraine Courtney: 'Posting crash images online shows our mindset is skewed'

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'We all need to think a bit harder about how we use social media and what we choose to post on it.' Photo: Chris Ratcliffe/PA

'We all need to think a bit harder about how we use social media and what we choose to post on it.' Photo: Chris Ratcliffe/PA

PA Archive/PA Images

'We all need to think a bit harder about how we use social media and what we choose to post on it.' Photo: Chris Ratcliffe/PA

The last public hanging in Ireland was in 1868, so it's more than a century since the ghoulishness associated with death was in any way acceptable viewing. Nowadays this kind of prurience is mostly confined to science fiction dystopias like 'The Hunger Games' or a particular kind of driver who slows down to video a car crash, hoping to record something shocking.

Shortly after the fatal collision in which a woman was killed last Thursday, graphic pictures and video of the M50 scene started appearing on social media sites. Gardaí asked people to stop sharing the images and are examining CCTV footage of passers-by. Everyone has expressed appropriate outrage.

It is right that we are outraged, but the web is full of dark images, and the urge to post the pictures of last Thursday's crash seems to be part of a frightening new normal.

Our curiosity about anything dark or grisly isn't new.

But today everyone has a camera in their pocket and photos of accident victims can circulate swiftly around the internet and cause distress to grieving families. Could and should we now make it criminal for someone to take pictures of accidents?

My generation grew up with a very loose definition of privacy, sharing everything online from our morning cup of coffee to moments that really should be private, like our baby's first smile. Documenting every aspect of your life unfiltered leaves little room for self-reflection, and the pressure to post content as soon as it happens means things that should be kept private end up getting broadcast to millions of people before the creator has time to process the actual message we are sending out into the world.

Most of us agree that certain types of graphic content should be prohibited and we want to see some accountability from social media companies that profit from what we post. But would that accountability break the web? If we want the internet to continue to be a space for creativity and innovation, we have to be careful about how we go about it.

Gardaí have said they can use motorway traffic laws to prosecute drivers who may have taken photographs of the accident's aftermath, and have already identified one person. Drivers using mobile phones can be charged with distracted driving. Last year, the driver of an articulated truck in Cork was convicted of careless driving as he had used both hands to take photos of an accident on the South Ring Road. He was fined €600 and given five penalty points.

We should now go further and make it criminal to actually take photos at accident scenes. Cathy's Law is a 2012 New Jersey statute that bans paramedics from sharing photos or videos of accident victims without their permission. That law was prompted by the case of Cathy Bates, a woman who died in a car accident, a photo of which was posted on Facebook before the family was even notified of her death.

There are also issues around privacy. Our privacy rights don't extend to the dead but many courts around the world have concluded that families of deceased individuals do have privacy rights to the deceased.

There have been a number of instances where that kind of intrusive behaviour has led to the development of new privacy laws.

In 2012 a family tormented by explicit accident photos of their daughter on the internet settled a lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol for leaking accident photos of their daughter that went viral worldwide. The Catsouras family were paid $2.375m (€2m) and the lawsuit rewrote law throughout California concerning the privacy rights of surviving family members.

We clearly need to adjust our laws so that we have consequences for this kind of behaviour. In the meantime, we all need to think a bit harder about how we use social media and what we choose to post on it.

Irish Independent