Ponderance

(May 2003 - March 2007.) Tama's thoughts on the blogosphere, podcasting, popular culture, digital media and citizen journalism posted from a laptop computer somewhere in Perth's isolated, miniature, urban jungle ...

Citizen Justice or Opening Pandora's Box?

Sunday, August 28, 2005
On Thursday, Boing Boing ran a story "Alleged subway wanker caught on cameraphone, Flickr" which tells how a young woman, Thao Nguyen, was allegedly flashed by a guy who completely exposed himself to her and masturbated on the NY subway; in response, she took his photo with her cameraphone, apparently putting him off enough to leave the train. She took the photo to the police, looked through some existing mug-shots, couldn't immediately identify the man, and then posted the photo to her Flickr account. Since then, her Flickr photo has been viewed over 89,000 times, the story has appeared in 1010Wins and, more importantly, in the New York Daily News (cover image here, [via BoingBoing]). At first glance, this story reflects an empowering use of new technologies: instead of being victimised by a guy who may never be identified, Thao Nguyen used her cameraphone to capture an image of her abuser and then used Flickr and digital word of mouth (amplified by Boing Boing and then an old media newspaper) to get the image of this guy out as a warning. Even if not caught, the guy in question probably won't be riding the subway again for a while as there are no doubt many citizens (and police) who are now familiar with his face. In this particular instance, this use of technology appears to be entirely positive (especially if the guy is caught, tried and proven guilty).

However, there lies the issue. Boing Boing, quite sensibly, added an "allegedly" to their first story about this incident. While I'm 100% comfortable with everything up to Thao Nguyen posting the image in her Flickr account (which is her right as the person taking the shot), I'm less comfortable with the media reportage thereafter. Sure, this case seems very straightforward: flasher guy is bad/evil/deranged. But, what if "the flasher" has a mental illness of some sort and didn't understand what he was doing? What if there are other extreme circumstances behind his action? Now, let me state clearly: I would never wish this situation on anyone and am sure the trauma Thao Nguyen felt is very real and should not be in any way trivialised. However, beyond this image, nothing else is know about the guy on the train. Now, I recognise that this is one of those cases where if it was left up to the police and law, it's very possible nothing would get done. Police in NY seem to be very busy most of the time and this sort of abuse may very well not register very high on their priority list. So, Thao Nguyen's actions may very well have sped up justice in a particular way. Indeed, in this very specific case, Thao's actions and those of the media seem very just and upright.

Before getting too drawn into the story, lets look a few steps into the future. Pictures, as we all know, can easily be manipulated. Pictures tell 1000 words, but which thousand can be readily manipulated by whoever takes or contextualises the image. I'm not suggesting that Thao Nguyen did either of these things. But, if this becomes a trend and a cameraphone-enabled trial-by-Flickr gains a odd sort of credibility, the potential to abuse such a system is virtually limitless. What if after a nasty breakup photos that were taken with consent within the bounds of a relationship were re-contextualised and posted online as a form of revenge? What if a particularly effective photoshop effort was posted online? It's probably the case that either of these cases would be shown to be untrue give time, many people would probably never see such a clarification/retraction. Newspapers, if they pick up the story, have a nasty trend of giving accusations page one treatment and retractions two lines on the bottom of page forty-seven. So, while I commend Thao Nguyen for her quick thinking and wish her every luck in prosecuting the man who appears strongly to have abused her, I simply want to add a few words of warning to the digital ether and ask you to think about the ramifications of digital images becoming a form of citizen "justice". We need to be wary in such cases, or our new digital resources may indeed open a seductive but ultimately unjust hi-tech pandora's box.

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9 Comments:

At 8/28/2005 03:23:00 pm, Blogger Ren said...

Problem is though, that people are posting manipulated pictures of people they don't like all over the web, it's been going on for years. The only thing that makes this different is that the right people saw it (BoingBoing and subsequently NYP). There are lots of people making fun of strangers, whether they just look funny or have a visible affliction (such as Downs Syndrome). I've seen some nasty stuff, especially recently.

 
At 8/28/2005 03:26:00 pm, Blogger John Lynch said...

When I saw this I thought "aaah. Blogging at its finest" :P But this is actually quite a good post.

And while you do raise good points, At the moment, I think this is one case where current laws are good enough. Many things would have to happen (in my opinion there's no indication they will happen) for all of your fears to be realized. However that doesn't mean some of your worries haven't already occurred.

I'm less comfortable with the media reportage thereafter.

That's actually a very good point. And it's very typical of the modern day media. However the fact that this picture was posted on Flickr by the victim, in my opinion, hasn't affected how the media has reported it. Yeah, it got covered because of how Thao reacted, but had this been brought to the media's attention in some other way, and they had decided to report on it, I doubt they would have been different in their reporting. The fact it was posted on the web and it is something different, forces us to then analyze the entire situation, and we see faults with things unrelated to the fact it was posted on the web (one fault being how the media reports on this sort of thing).

What if after a nasty breakup photos that were taken with consent within the bounds of a relationship were re-constextualised and posted online as a form of revenge?

That's already occurring, just see what these cruel people did to Gabe and Tycho of Penny-arcade. Some of those edits are so good you don't even realize they've been done. While this particular instance would probably be covered by parody (barely in my opinion), doing something like that to "defame" someone would be illegal (and the person could be sued over it).

But, if this becomes a trend and a cameraphone-enabled trial-by-Flickr gains a odd sort of credibility, the potential to abuse such a system is virtually limitless

Credibility among who? People who visit special websites for such things (not Flickr, but think "theseguysarerapists.com")? the gullible? It certainly wouldn't have any credence in court (except for a photo). I'd like to hope most people would be intelligent enough to not take everything they read on the internet as gospel. I also see this as no different from say putting up flyers in the neighbourhood where it happened of the picture of the guy with a little bit of information (like a WANTED poster), with the small difference of it getting to more people and not being able to be defaced. I don't know if it would be legal, but I do think it would be comparable to putting it on Flickr.

I don't think the main caution should be in those who put pictures on the internet (although they should have some caution), but those who see the picture on the internet. Everything you read might not be true ;)

Completely unrelated.
Are those del.icio.us tags you have at the bottom automatic or manual??

 
At 8/28/2005 03:58:00 pm, Blogger Tama said...

At the moment, I think this is one case where current laws are good enough. Many things would have to happen (in my opinion there's no indication they will happen) for all of your fears to be realized. However that doesn't mean some of your worries haven't already occurred.

That may be true, but I find myself rather pessimistic about such things! (Also, part of what I meant when suggesting that certain laws weren't up to the job was in relation to actually prosecuting the flasher/abuser. I'm not as confident that sexual abuse of this sort is actually taken seriously enough by the US of Australian legal systems. That, of course, is another argument altogether.)

The fact it was posted on the web and it is something different, forces us to then analyze the entire situation, and we see faults with things unrelated to the fact it was posted on the web (one fault being how the media reports on this sort of thing).

It's that difference which I find concerning. The mainstream press simply would never (or, almost never) have picked up this story without the amplification effect of it being online and magnified by the uber-interst-indicator Boing Boing. However, once such an article is out there in the mainstream press, it's the next article you have to worry about if this one isn't addressed with a critical eye.

Credibility among who?

If everyone who engaged with the often-sensationalist mainstream media was critical all the time and media literate a la Henry Jenkins, I wouldn't worry. However, I do think many people (including many intelligent people!) take things at face value they really shouldn't. This effect is magnified when sexual abuse is part of the equation because the gut response from most people (including myself) is to be outranged on behalf of the person abused.

I don't think the main caution should be in those who put pictures on the internet (although they should have some caution), but those who see the picture on the internet. Everything you read might not be true ;)

I completely agree.

Completely unrelated. Are those del.icio.us tags you have at the bottom automatic or manual??

The tags are generated by a very minorly tweaked bookmarklet from Greywolf. You just punch in the tag words and it generates the code to be posted into your blogpost. (The best workaround so far until Blogger finally implements tags and categories natively!)

 
At 8/29/2005 02:40:00 pm, Anonymous tmz_99 said...

regardless of mental impearment, the alleged wanker should be held responsible for his actions. Bottom line is, if he is retarded or otherwise mentally challenged I'm sure the police will deal with him accordingly.

 
At 8/29/2005 02:46:00 pm, Blogger Tama said...

Tmz_99, while the police may very well deal with someone appropriately if they have some sort of mental illness, the difficulty arises if the person in question has already, in effect, been tried by the media (who, I strongly suspect, would not put much effort into retracting/editing their stories if the person did, indeed, turn out to be mentally ill!).

 
At 8/31/2005 12:06:00 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Police in NY seem to be very busy most of the time"

You've clearly never been to New York. ;)

 
At 8/31/2005 03:31:00 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this the same Thao Nguyen that's a recording artist?

Check out this link.

 
At 8/31/2005 07:54:00 am, Blogger Tama said...

"Police in NY seem to be very busy most of the time"

You've clearly never been to New York. ;)


I've only been there for a couple of weeks, but it was in 2003 during the first few weeks of the US invasion of Iraq, at which point the police were not just busy but going out of their way to be visible (many with machine guns, it seemed!).

 
At 8/31/2005 07:56:00 am, Blogger Tama said...

Is this the same Thao Nguyen that's a recording artist?

I'm fairly certain it's a different Thao Nguyen. From what I've read, I think this Thao is a computer programmer or web designer of the like from New York.

 

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