Bad behaviour? Blame people, not social web tools

I can’t imagine too many things more degenerate than the behaviour of a group of people at a rave in Pitt Meadows a week ago.  A 16 year old girl was drugged and gang-raped while a sicko took photographs.  One of the rapists and the photographer have since been arrested after, in particular, the photos were shared on Facebook.  Facebook authorities have removed the photos, but police suggest they will be in circulation for some time, due to the nature of the Internet.

Let alone the kind of people who would drug and gang-rape a teenage girl, what kind of person takes photos of the act and later distributes them?  What kind of people circulate and enjoy looking at that kind of thing?  Police were rightly horrified at the disregard for the girl and have asked that people stop sharing the photos, while suggesting that continuing to do so constitutes distribution of child pornography.  As already noted, by that time the photos had been viewed and downloaded and the damage had largely been done.  I can’t disagree with any of that. What I’d like to say at this point, though, is that Facebook, or social media in general, is not the issue here.  Not for one minute.

I’m a big fan of the Vancouver Sun’s Douglas Todd.  He is an award-winning writer, focusing primarily on spirituality and ethics.  I do not know his particular religious leanings, but as an atheist I am always struck by his ability to write about theological subjects with an analytical clarity most such writing misses.  Unfortunately, on this story he seems to strike a tone with which I’m none too comfortable.

He suggests that, with this brave new world of technology in the hands of scumbags such as the one who took these photos and then posted them on Facebook, we must develop ways to stop such behaviour:

This incident warns us that, in addition to continuing to combat sexual assaults, our entire society must find a way to deal with novel technology that hands a frenzied young nobody the devastating power to offer photo images of a vicious sex assault to anyone.

He later goes on to say, “Given such incidents, it’s odd we still tend to think of technology as morally neutral.” Technology is always morally neutral. Todd, more than anyone, should see that. Technology has no value system, no sense of right or wrong and no decision-making process – at least technology such as a social network platform (it’s hardly fuzzy logic at work). Someone always has to make the decision to share and that’s where it ceases to be morally neutral. He likens social media to the car, stating that fatalities only began to decrease as governments made them safer and reduced speed limits. However, last time I checked plenty of people get behind the wheel after drinking, or speed or do any number of things they shouldn’t. People still get hurt and people still die and we will never change that completely. But it’s not the cars that are drinking and driving. It’s not guns, cigarettes, alcohol, knives or countless other inanimate objects that cause pain and suffering either. It’s people.

Nothing Douglas Todd says is particularly wrong, but the tone of the article suggests that we need to take control of the Internet to stop such behaviour, while protecting our rights as individuals. However, whether you’re talking about speeding, drinking and driving, smoking or many other harmful things we do in a free society, it is not the law that will change behaviour, it’s education. No matter how much tax you tack onto booze and cigarettes, people keep drinking and smoking. Over time, though, if people are educated as to the long-term effects of poor behaviour and bad choices, those with a moral compass will learn, while there will always be those who don’t or won’t.

The other thing missing from Douglas Todd’s analysis is the role that Facebook may have played in catching the photographer in the first place. According to The Maple Ridge News:

Police only found out about the rape when a high school student came forward with images of the act in progress. A Facebook page about the party helped with the police investigation. It has since been taken down.

The images that were brought to police may well have first been seen on Facebook. Sadly, whether social media existed or not, this crime probably would have occurred. Without Facebook, the photos could still have been shared by email or passed around in hard copy. While fewer people would have seen them, the crime may not have been reported as quickly. The debate about the effect of the photo sharing is not a simple, black and white one. Again, it’s the choices made by these people – the act, the taking of the photographs and the sharing. If there was a magic button that would only allow moral people to use technology, I’d be the first to push it.

There’s little doubt that the photos have caused the victim unimaginable pain, but Facebook may ultimately help bring the rapists and photographer to justice. Since they ended up online, I only hope the degenerate photographer was as stupid as he was immoral. With any luck there will be enough evidence to arrest everyone who had a part in this. Let’s make sure, though, we recognize that like anything, this technology is neither good nor evil. The same cannot be said of everyone who uses it.