The ubiquity of cameras and social media has resulted in ordinary people being able to record events in their surroundings and then posting them online. Occasionally the videos go viral and gain wide viewership, resulting in those appearing in them to achieve a temporary fame. Sometimes the people want the fame and go to great lengths to get it but at other times they may not. This raises the issue of the extent to which it is justified to post the actions of people who just happen to be in public.
One issue is the legality of recording others in public and then posting the videos online. From what I can infer just from things that have been posted, it seems to be legal to post images of adults who are out in public but not of children but I am uncertain of how far this has been tested in court. An even more difficult issue is whether it is ethical to do so. When the videos capture official misconduct such as police abuse, then the subject cannot complain about the resulting notoriety. But what about the actions of ordinary people?
Here it seems to be helpful to distinguish between recording acts that are malicious and harmful to others and those that are just mundane. In the case of the former, such as when ordinary people indulge in reprehensible behavior such as hurling racist and other bigoted language at other people, it seems to have become accepted that they cannot complain when they become infamous and are publicly shamed. We have seen many cases of people losing their jobs because of racist and otherwise obnoxious behavior in public that was posted online and came to the attention of their employers. But what if someone is harmed because their perfectly ordinary behavior was misrepresented by a context-free video? Would they have any legal recourse?
A recent case that raised this issue was when actress and comedian Rosey Blair was on a plane and took a series of videos of a male and female seated in front of her who were talking to each other and wove those clips into a fanciful romance story between the two and posted them in real time on Twitter. The postings went viral and people went to great lengths to identify the pair. The man involved seemed to welcome his 15 minutes of fame but the woman was mortified by the unwanted attention she received.
The faces of the two passengers who had unwittingly become the subject of Rosey’s story had been blurred out, but an online hunt was under way to try to identify them.
The woman was being referred to as “pretty plane girl” and Twitter users posted screen shots of what they said was her Instagram account.
“My personal information has been widely distributed online,” she said in the statement.
“Strangers publicly discussed my private life based on patently false information. I have been doxxed, shamed, insulted and harassed. Voyeurs have come looking for me online and in the real world.”
Blair’s action in recording and posting the actions of strangers has been described as creepy and a form of stalking. The woman involved is right to be angry at what was done to her. It is good to realize that not everyone wants to be famous nor do they want their lives to be a source of entertainment for others. Some people enjoy their anonymity and just want to live their lives without the fear of others recording and posting it.
I’d say the problem is that too many people, like Ms. Blair, have absolutely no sense of boundaries. This is not the fault of those victimized in such a way; this is the fault of people who are attention hounds, and think other people are fine fodder for their aims and their pockets.
I’m appalled by Ms. Blair’s actions. I had never heard of her, and I’ll be sure to avoid anything of hers in the future.
You may not recall this, but there was a time when I had a sign on the lid of my laptop that showed my logo and the words: “I’m blogging this.”
I did that with tongue in cheek, but as an undergraduate journalism student at Ohio University I actually took part in class-sanctioned eavesdropping exercises where our professor would send us out to sit in bars, restaurants and other public spaces where people would be talking to listen in on the conversations and then report back. The point was not to invade a private individual’s privacy—nothing was ever published—but rather to train our ears to listen at political events for the odd scrap said in passing when a politician is in public but unaware that anyone is paying attention.
As a blogger working a great deal of the time in area coffee shops I became amazed at what people would say (particularly on their phones) in public. I overheard any number of trysts and on one memorable day listened to a prominent Ohio politician say somethings that bordered on the criminal. I fed that one to one of my contacts at the Plain Dealer and let them run with the story.
The real purpose of my sign was to make people stop and think that they were in a public space where anyone could be listening and recording. Over the years only a very few asked me about the caution,
I think fewer and fewer are learning the lesson.