A world without rule
Many years ago, when Facebook was in its infancy, and I was far less cynical and much more naïve than I am today, I posted some pictures on the social-networking site which could best be described as risqué. They were images of me at a strip club, cavorting with the dancers, hanging out of scantily-clad women, leering, jeering and just generally being a menace to society.
Facebook was different then, our mothers weren’t on it, it was just you, your mates and a few random strangers. It wasn’t that different though, it wasn’t a den of iniquity, it wasn’t a place for feckless degenerates to share images of their sordid, depraved nightlife. Not that I knew that at the time. It took a message from one of my friends, a hastily constructed missive warning me of the consequences, for me to remove the images and save my social-networking experience from being curtailed before it had even begun.
Like I said, I was naïve, social media was a relatively new phenomenon, and I didn’t see the harm in sharing a few funny pictures with the people on my friends’ list. I have, of course, since learned my lesson. In fact, I’ve come full-circle. I’ll barely comment on someone’s video, react to someone’s status or share someone’s post now without first reflecting upon how that activity might be interpreted by, not just my friends, but the friends of my friends, their friends and everyone beyond.
Acquiring such wisdom takes time however, and for every safety-first, what-would-your-mammy-think chap like me, there are scores of reckless risk-takers, people who act first and think later. Unlike me however, no one is warning them of the consequences – or, if they are, no notice is being taken. As a result, these people are discovering that their actions will not only see their accounts suspended, they may also lead to far more serious repercussions.
Twenty percent of all cases referred to An Garda Síochána involve some element of social media. Ranging from the serious; revenge porn, online bullying, sharing of explicit imagery; to the not so serious; petty disputes, name-calling and neighbourly quarrels; these cases are now just another part of the daily minutiae of the average guard. However, despite their volume, despite the scale of work involved, there is no specialised unit to deal with these incidents, no facility to ensure the guard assigned to each case understands the inner-workings of Snapchat’s face-swap function.
These cases are treated like any other, handed to whomever happens to be next up, whether he be a 54-year-old veteran with basic Internet skills or a spry, young twentysomething with a diploma in Instagramming. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Gardaí aren’t permitted to use social-media sites at work, not even for work purposes. The Pulse system blocks them all, meaning guards must use their own devices, running the risk of having personal laptops or phones becoming part of the chain of evidence and confiscated as a result.
But by far the biggest obstacle to resolving these cases and, if necessary, charging those found to be in breach of the law, are the websites themselves. In order to investigate these incidents procedurally, Gardaí must go directly to the headquarters of the site in question, albeit via a somewhat circuitous route. First, they file an affidavit which must travel through the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Chief State Solicitors Office here so that the exact nature of the offence may be specified in legalese. From there it lands on the desk of the local district attorney in the US, who then goes to court to try and acquire the relevant data, i.e. the string of messages from your ex-girlfriend calling you a low-down dirty shame, a scourge to humanity and an altogether rotten sort – or words to that effect.
And, to further muddy the waters, each request must be renewed every 90 days, adding yet more paperwork, more red tape to cases which, some might argue, shouldn’t be left to the Gardaí at all. Because that’s the real issue here, not that our guards aren’t trained to deal with these cases or that dealing with them takes more resources and manpower than is often necessary, it’s whether they should have to spend their time settling these disputes at all.
It’s time Facebook, Twitter et al took a little responsibility for what happens on their sites. We’ve heard the arguments, that there’s two billion people on Facebook and it’s impossible to moderate all content at all times, that it deals with reported incidents in due course and is constantly monitoring its users’ behaviour. But that’s not good enough. This is a company which has an annual turnover of almost $30billion, a company which has made its founder one of the richest men in the world. Furthermore, this is a company which has been caught studying the moods of teenage users to determine their emotional state, analysing photos and status updates of children as young as fourteen to ascertain their moods.
Unlike our beleaguered Gardaí, who continue to struggle with staff cuts and the closures of stations all over the country, Facebook has no shortage of resources. It has the finances, the power, to govern its environs, and each one of its members, with an iron fist. But it chooses not to, it chooses to monitor user activity instead, collating data, detailing trends, all in the name of advertising and profit. The security and safety of its users, while important, comes a distant second to maximising revenue, to ensuring those users see adverts specifically catered to their tastes.
Nowhere else can so many people gather in one place and behave in such a manner without fear of reprisal. Blackguard in a nightclub and you’ll be out on the street, put there by a bevy of bouncers in no mood for your shit. Go to a concert, a festival, and act the maggot, same thing; out the door, regardless of how much your ticket cost. This scenario is repeated in any place where humans converge; football stadia, public transport, workplaces, schools; they are all self-governed, operating a zero-tolerance policy which is accepted and adhered to.
Why can’t Facebook do the same? Why, when someone is racially abused on its site, can’t it be the one to take action? Why isn’t it contacting Gardaí instead of the other way around? Where are its bouncers, its security staff, its stewards? They’re somewhere in a call centre in Delhi that’s where, working for a pittance, informing you that your call is important while you placate a child who’s being mercilessly and consistently bullied by a gang of vicious toe-rags.
They’re too busy to deal with your query, too busy to remove a video of a man gunning down a randomly chosen passer-by, too busy creating the next big thing, the thing that will keep them ahead of their rivals and generate the capital to sate their investors. Tell it to someone else, someone who gives a damn.
Now you see me
The poor Guards, they don’t have it easy. When they’re not mediating Facebook disputes they’re contending with Limerick’s answer to Harry Houdini. Appearing at the District Court on a charge of escaping Garda custody, Jonathon McCarthy did what most magicians advise strongly against and pulled off the same trick twice.
Keeping an expectant audience guessing until the last, this master of escapology waited until he had been refused bail before making his move. Choosing not to wow onlookers with sleight of hand or fancy theatrics, Mr McCarthy simply vanished into thin air, much to the chagrin of attending officers, judge and legal counsel.
Not one to leave fans short-changed, the accused, whose bail had been refused due to his being a flight risk, went out with a bang, slamming the door behind him as he made his escape. This risky manoeuvre might have seen the entire act fail, leading to enraged punters demanding their money back, but Mr McCarthy closed the show in style, eluding befuddled Gardaí by seamlessly blending into his environment.
Given that Mr McCarthy remains at large we can only assume that he has trumped even the famous Houdini by disappearing into the ether completely. Rumour has it that next week’s District Court will see a defendant sawn in half, put back together and then turned into a rabbit. I can’t wait.