Pursed lips and personal lives

An Cailín Rua

INVASIVE LENS Footage of everything from private pub antics to harrowing road crashes appears on social media, without thought for those involved or affected.

The recent viral video of Leo Varadkar socialising has sparked a long-overdue debate on privacy in the social-media era 

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

It shouldn’t have taken a video of the then-Tánaiste, now-Taoiseach to trigger a mobile phone privacy debate, but the year in Ireland is never really complete without a good dose of GUBU, is it?
For very good reason, it didn’t make many headlines in the mainstream media out of respect to Leo Varadkar, but a video emerged on TikTok a couple of weeks ago of him engaging in some … ehm, extra-curricular activity in a nightclub. Clearly, he had no idea he was being filmed, but the video spread like wildfire across social media and WhatsApp. As you would expect, it provoked a huge amount of debate, and no small amount of nastiness and homophobia.
Being filmed without our knowledge or consent is not a new occurrence, but this is probably the most recent high-profile example of the pitfalls of camera phones. Designed for convenience, in some hands when used inappropriately, they breach privacy and confidentiality, and can become a tool for blackmail and ridicule. No one is safe.
Who on a night out or concert hasn’t had to dodge the sweeping pan of a phone camera as someone drunkenly tries to capture the atmosphere for their Instagram stories? There is little worse than being captured on camera without your knowledge and being beamed out to the world. I know someone who got into hot water with their partner when, having claimed they were working late, inadvertently appeared on a mutual friend’s Instagram feed dancing around a pub brandishing a pint!
Though not reported in the mainstream media, we’ve all had videos of people’s late night indiscretions land in our phones via WhatsApp; and in certain cases in this county, people filmed without their consent have been underage.
And it’s not limited to pubs and clubs.
Authorities now frequently have to issue appeals to people to not circulate footage of assaults or road traffic accidents on social media. Just last week, An Garda Síochána confirmed that they were aware of videos in circulation that had been recorded during proceedings at one of the highest-profile murder trials in the country, that of Gerry ‘The Monk’ Hutch.
The Tánaiste was not the first high-profile political victim of clandestine filming, either. Earlier this year, a leaked video of Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin showed her drinking and – shock, horror! – dancing with friends, provoking a huge debate. Sometimes, these things can lead to minor discomfort and embarrassment, but they can be far more sinister. For example, how many of our young people are being targeted and blackmailed in private by footage captured without their consent and are afraid to speak up?
It is not for any of us to comment on Leo Varadkar’s behaviour; what he does in his own time is his own concern. If we are not yet past the days of curtain twitching and pursed lips of disapproval and judgement about other people’s personal lives, we should be. Perhaps he should have been more careful, for his own sake, but is not for us to cast moral judgement on how he chooses to behave – it is precisely none of our business. Instead, we should be focusing on our own behaviours, and interrogating the culture that deems this type of behaviour acceptable.
At best, filming people or situations without their knowledge or consent is the height of bad manners and inconsideration. At worst, it’s cruel behaviour that demonstrates a shocking lack of empathy, and dangerous behaviour that can do irreparable damage to a person and their reputation or indeed, legal proceedings.
The then-Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, rightly branded the video of Leo Varadkar a violation of his colleague’s right to a private life, while indicating that upcoming legislation would provide for a new social-media regulator and new accountability, with EU directives underpinning the rules for the tech firms that operate these platforms. This is notable, but it’s telling that it took one of their own to be targeted before this behaviour was deemed unacceptable.
The holding of social media giants, who have gotten away with murder down the years, accountable for inappropriate materials circulated on their platforms is long, long overdue. However, it still does not address the root cause of this phenomenon: the decisions, no matter how innocuous that people knowingly make in certain situations with a camera in hand, without care or consideration for those who are on the other side of the screen. And until that changes, we are all at risk. Even if we don’t realise it.  
Wishing all readers a peaceful and happy Christmas.