Thursday, November 7, 2013

O, brave new world that has such people in't

The recent revelations about the ‘roast busters’ Facebook group has once again brought the focus of attention onto social media. The outrage over the existence of this site is justified. Sites dedicated to videos of the rape, naming and shaming of young girls who have been stupefied with alcohol are abhorrent, and an example of society at its very worst. If media reports are to be believed, the site apparently was set up (by teenage boys who happily reveal their faces to their camera) almost two years ago, and police have been aware of it for some time. And yet nothing was done.

The facts of this case have yet to be determined. Considering the complexities of the networked world, and the nature of the charges, some facts may never be revealed. However, in this case, as in others reported on in the international press, digital and social media play central roles. When I was 13 or 14, a video camera was a rare and expensive item. The video produced could be viewed on a television, but sharing or copying it required access to several VCRs and technical knowledge that wasn’t widely available. In addition, it took time… copying a 1-hour video took at least an hour, valuable time for cooling down and reflecting on the potential risks and dangers of sharing whatever it was that had been recorded.

Things are different today. Even the cheapest and nastiest mobile phone contains a decent camera. Copying and (global) sharing of the videos made on the phone happens at the push of a button. Within hours, millions of people may have watched, shared, ‘liked’ and commented on your video. By the time uploader’s remorse sets in, your video or picture of yourself doing something foolish is well and truly out of the bag. To make things worse, sites such as Facebook allow for facial recognition and automatic tagging. If you are not careful you can find yourself ‘tagged’ and identified in the background of someone else’s crime or idiocy. 

We know that social media feeds into a primal adolescent need to be liked, to belong. Friends without Benefits, a must-read article in the September 2013 edition of Vanity Fair, paints a depressing view of the impact of Facebook and Twitter on teenagers. It describes "...a world where boys are taught they have the right to expect everything from social submission to outright sex from their female peers"; quotes teenagers who admit that social media is destroying their lives, but they feel they would have no life without it; and reveals a world where the measure of one's worth is the number of 'likes' your latest Facebook post receives. However, conventional media also has a lot to answer for. Rumours, gossip, and naming and shaming are great ways to sell newspapers or drive traffic to a website. Radio DJs on stations targeting youth share revel in salacious tidbits of information about drunk actresses or the latest celebrity sex tape. They celebrate their own drunken binges. One New Zealand station even hosts a popular weekly feature called ‘drunk girl trivia’ (Did you stop to check that the selected drunk girl you interviewed and broadcast on national radio got home safely, Dave? Did you contact her when she was sober to make sure she was still happy to have her drunken maunderings broadcast to the world?)  Is it any surprise that we live in a society that coins terms like ‘roast busting’ when the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour have become so blurred? Teenagers are not known for their wisdom and good judgement, yet we provide them with instant access to the world, and simultaneously replace the safety nets of centuries of social norms and moral development with the self-serving, anything-goes world of celebrity and social media. And we offer them no help in managing their way.

None of this is meant to imply that the accused in this particular case should be excused – from all reports, they have coldly, premeditatedly and repeatedly uploaded rape videos. But it does beg the question, in this hugely connected world, why did it take so long for the site to be discovered? I find it hard to believe that only the alleged rapists and the victims knew of the existence of the site.  How is it that no one else said that it was not ok for 13-year olds to be supplied with enough alcohol to render them senseless? Not only were the police apparently disinterested, but where were the friends who must have known about it but who said nothing? What world are we living in where no one other than the victims (for whom reporting would be the hardest) object; not only to this site but to the types of behaviours that lead to its existence? 

The cat is out of the bag. The online world is intimately woven into our daily lives, and whether it is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, or some-yet-to-be-created fad, the issues that accompany ubiquitous connectedness are here to stay. Social media has many positive elements, but it has also irrevocably changed the rules of society (see this article, about funeral selfies). We need our role models to show how to use these tools positively. Miley Cyrus’ [or insert celeb du jour name here] endless stream of ‘selfies’ contributes to the positive development of her bank balance. Apart from that, it suggests to her audience of na├»ve young teenage wannabees that it’s ok to share pictures of your [drunken binge/vomiting/drugging/snogging/etc.] with the world. Sadly, it isn't. And sites like ‘roast busters’ proves it. The world is not a safe place.

We must find ways to model appropriate behaviour in this new context in a way that makes it attractive and appealing for our youth. The alternative, I fear, will make Lord of the Flies pale by comparison.

Update: 8 November
Last night, Campbell Live aired an interview about 'roasting' in general, and the site in particular. Two teenagers spoke in terrifyingly matter-of-fact tones about their knowledge of the goings-on, including apparently witnessing incidents, and being invited to participate. The biggest issue for them, it would seem, was not that 'roasting' happens, but that it shouldn't be boasted about on Facebook. At no point did it occur to them that stupefying and rape are crimes, and that they should do something about it.