Blaming Selfies When Things Go Wrong

I was reading an article on the site Psychology Today, that was a response to the show Selfie (see my article on Selfie here. I would have written a follow-up on the series as a whole, but after watching the first episode, I don’t believe I could put myself through any more of that. It was quite spectacularly objectionable).

The Psychology Today article aimed to present quite a balanced view of selfie-taking, explaining the practice as something that exemplified the importance of social relations and esteem to our wellbeing. It seeks to mitigate the negative effects of selfie discourse by challenging the generalisations and gender bias, importantly highlighting the contradiction in the demands on young women, to be seen as attractive and yet not to be perceived as ‘vain’.  But the article is problematic in that it explains the importance of society in forming and experiencing identities, and then asks whether it is a ‘good thing’ that selfies have become part of this – this seems like a loaded question. Surely social motivation can neither be universally good nor bad, but entirely dependent on context, outcome etc. And why does the incorporation of photography into a pre-existing social process pose such an enormous threat? The piece concludes by reinstating a problematic and excessive view of selfies and social media use more generally, as something that needs to be modified and controlled. To understand how specific this kind of discourse is, consider the number of articles that problematise books, music videos or films in this way, as something to be limited and as a target for continual outrage and concern. But then they do not constitute unruly entries into the public sphere, in that way that selfies do, and it is that participation, rather than what they ‘do’ for selfie-takers, that is the real ‘problem’.

But the real surprise was yet to come. There was only one comment underneath the article. I had to click on it to read it, and I was amazed:

Joan Rivers got killed during a simple proceedure because her “vain” Dr. took a “selfie.”

When it was suggested in the press that Rivers’ personal ENT doctor, Dr Gwen Korovin, took a selfie with her unconscious patient, there was outrage. Underneath one article, a commenter suggested:

What a complete breach of trust and professionalism. This doctor should lose his medical license permanently, in the very least, and possibly even face criminal charges for the selfie alone. Can doctors no longer be trusted with their unconscious patients?

This outrage entirely eclipsed the accompanying suggestion that alongside taking a photo, the doctor concerned had also performed an unathorised biopsy on Rivers. Taking photographs in this context would indeed be deeply unprofessional, but moreso than conducting procedures which the patient had not agreed to? Both accusations – of selfie and of biopsy – were heavily denied, as the product of hearsay at the clinic. The New York medical examiner ruled that Rivers died from oxygen starvation after she stopped breathing. It was reported that negligence was not found to be a contributing cause in her death, and that there was no biopsy. But this comment demonstrates the degree to which selfie-taking has been catastrophised within popular discourse – here, it is the selfie that killed Rivers. Not the use of anaesthetic at her age (81), not the fact that she wasn’t in a hospital and that treatment for her cardiac arrest was, as a result, delayed. It was the selfie – the quintessentially abject example of human depravity – that was to blame, for the popular understanding of selfies is that they do not have merely the capacity to annoy or engrage, they can also be lethal. Never mind any other contributing factors – it was the selfie. I only wish we could have heard what Rivers’ witty and acerbic reaction to this would have been.

NSA: National Selfies Agency

Following on from last week’s discussion of the way in which selfies are used to exemplify problematic forms of data, this tendency is also evident in a comparison between a news story as reported in Tech Crunch and by the New York Times. Back in May, both reported that the NSA was using images harvested from the web to build facial recognition software: an emerging technology for the identification and tracing of suspected individuals. The contrast between the two reports is interesting.

The New York Times details how documents leaked by Edward Snowden show an NSA emphasis on obtaining data to develop its facial recognition software. Facial images, we are told, are being incorporated into data collection along with other types of information, such as fingerprints. Although the article makes it clear that the focus would be on communications outside of the US, there’s a high likelihood that US citizens could have their image data collected too. The article expresses concerns over privacy issues, not just relating to the data, but also to the facial recognition technology in general, which one source terms as “very invasive”. The story concludes by adding that other projects have sought to locate subjects using satellite images, as well as acquiring biometric data, such as iris scans, from border crossing across a number of countries.

So this is a story about data gathering, and the uses government agencies have for such data, through compiling and cross-referencing across huge databases. This prompts significant concerns for civil liberties, especially considering the inaccuracies in identification the documents noted.

But these issues – of governments engaging in non-democratic practices of monitoring subjects – are obscured within the story as reported by Tech Crunch. Here, the NSA’s practices are reframed as further exemplifying the problem of selfies. The headline sets the tone by stating that “Your Selfie is a Mugshot for the NSA”. Your selfie. This is not a transgression against your civil liberties – rather, you are doing this to yourself.

Both articles quote an NSA document that details an “approach that digitally exploits the clues a target leaves behind in their regular activities on the net to compile biographic and biometric information [that can help] implement precision targeting”. So why are selfies singled out as the ultimate example of this problematic and exploited data trail? The answer lies in the public conception of selfies as problematic. Selfies are so abject, so borderline criminal, that it becomes almost logical to imagine that the NSA would be viewing them. Tech Crunch readers can therefore gain a sense of false security by separating themselves from a devalued photographic practice. It is much easier after all to conceptualise the problem of NSA monitoring in terms of personal responsibility, rather than in terms of state oppression. Selfie-taking again becomes a target for sublimated fears about something else entirely.

Furthermore, presenting selfies as a dangerous folly implicitly shifts the blame away from intelligence agencies, onto the subject, for creating this data in the first place. The article’s emphasis on selfie-blame is evident in a flawed correlation between selfies and passport photos – saying that if the NSA has the former, that’s almost as good as having the latter, which the agency does not have access to. But such images are not interchangeable, as selfies on sites such as Instagram have little useful identification data attached to them. It is not simply pictures that are the problem, but the cross-referencing that can be done with them. There’s no point shaming selfie-takers, again, when blame lies with those who are responsible for devising unorthodox methods of population surveillance.