It’s never been easier to share what’s in front of you: a trip to the supermarket, a visit to a theatre show, or visiting a new city. With this ease of access, however, comes a darker side— people forced into the limelight without any desire to go viral.
TikTok recently generated a feeding frenzy surrounding a video from a creator moving down a queue for Broadway tickets in New York City, asking for high-fives. When he approached one person, they cringed, turned away, and started crying.
Instantly, the internet began to speculate on their behaviour, with many people coming to the conclusion that they were racist, as the creator asking for a high-five was Black. It wasn’t until the person’s sister created her own video that people were made away they were autistic and overwhelmed, being caught off-guard by a stranger with a camera in an already unfamiliar location.
By that point, however, it was too late. They’d already been subjected to a flurry of messages and comments questioning their reaction and accusing them of bigotry.
Another case saw a group of young girls get tracked down on the internet after making some nasty comments in the background of a TikTok. Their names and workplaces were quickly discovered, with negative reviews being left on one workplace’s Google business page and another’s ex-boyfriend also having his address and personal information made public.
After dozens of negative reviews tanked the business’ online reputation, it was established that angry users actually tracked down the wrong workplace. Of course, this realisation came, once again, too late to repair the damage being done.
With so much information at our fingertips, it can be easy to run with a seemingly outrageous situation — but have we become too quick to act as judge, jury, and online executioner? Does someone making a mistake or a few nasty comments (aside from genuinely discriminatory comments) really mean they deserve to have their own and their loved ones’ personal lives invaded? Are we ready to face the consequences of levelling extraordinary amounts of attention, whether positive or negative, at a person without their consent?
People behind the screen
These examples all highlight people being filmed during interactions with another person, but in some cases, all a person might be doing is walking down the street. Sarah*, who lives near Glasgow in the UK, has been filmed without her consent on multiple occasions, simply because of the clothes she wears.
“I wear an alternative fashion style on a frequent basis that gets me a lot of attention,” Sarah said. “To be honest, I’ve been photographed and filmed so many times in public that I couldn’t even count all the times.”
“Most often, it happens while I’m just going about my everyday life: walking down the street, going to the shop, using public transport, and eating out with my friends. People shove their phone cameras in my face without even asking, oftentimes laughing about how ridiculous I look.”
“I hate being filmed in public, it’s such a violation of my privacy, especially when it happens in one of my most vulnerable moments.”
Not only is this upsetting for Sarah to experience, but it could also have a serious impact on her career.
“I hope to have a career in law in the future,” she said. “It would be extremely distressing for me if videos filmed and posted without my consent were shown to my future employers or clients.”
From digital to physical
Not only can taking videos of someone without their consent be deeply upsetting and have far-reaching consequences but, in some cases, the attitude that you have the right to film someone in public can escalate to even more serious instances of invading people’s personal space and threatening assault.
“My fashion style is often assumed to be fetish-related by people who sexualise women’s fashion, even though there is nothing sexual about it,” remembers Sarah. “One time, I was followed down a narrow street by a man filming me, making sexual comments and saying he is going to rape me.”
“I get especially scared when I see a man filming me without consent, as I am concerned he will either use the video for sexual purposes himself or post it to a porn site.”
What does the law have to say?
While filming people for sexual purposes would be considered a crime in most areas of the world, it’s not so clear-cut in many cases.
Dr. Hayleigh Bosher, Senior Lecturer in Intellectual Property Law at Brunel University London, describes the phenomenon as ‘forced faming’ – a term she coined to describe when someone is pushed into social media fame without their consent or, in some cases, even without realising it at first. Unfortunately, there is often little to be done after the fact.
“If the filming is done in private then this could be a breach of their privacy rights,” explained Dr. Bosher. “However, if they are filmed in public, the law says that there is usually no expectation of privacy in public and so this law is unlikely to be helpful.”
Dr. Bosher is here talking about the law in the UK, but there are also no laws to prevent people from filming others in public in Australia, unless it’s part of an artistic work, like a public performance. Even Germany, a country with generally stricter rules around privacy that prohibits certain forms of CCTV, has limited rules on filming people in public, saying only that you cannot film people in helpless situations, such as when drunk, the victim of a crime, or naked.
“These laws were made before social media and camera phones,” Dr. Bosher continued. “In my view, they do not adequately protect people from being filmed in public without their consent. The law needs to be updated to ensure that people seek consent before doing this and to protect people from having their lives disrupted in this way.”
Dr. Bosher’s advice if you do find yourself in this situation is to ask the platform and the uploader to take this down. However, many platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, don’t include consent as part of their rules around sharing content of others, unless it falls under certain categories, such as being sexual in nature, taken in private, or being part of a ‘performance.’
Even if you do get a video taken down on one platform, it’s very easy for it to be shared more widely on other platforms from there. In Sarah’s case, for example, she has never been successful in getting any of the unwanted videos of her taken down.
While there’s certainly room for platforms and lawmakers to do more, there’s also a responsibility on social media users to examine what we’re seeing online. If something sparks a feeling of outrage or anger, take a moment to think before lashing out. You never know if you’re seeing a full story, or what impact your words and actions can have on the real people with real lives sitting on the other side of a social media platform.
* Names have been changed for privacy.