Musings on Compulsory Social Media Shaming as De Facto Punishment

One of the local television stations regularly posts an ad-bait slideshow on its Facebook timeline that features the mug shots of recently arrested folks in the county jail. The FB post includes a set of eight photos and a link to the slideshow on the station’s site (periodically interrupted by clickable ads), where those photos and more appear with captions indicating the offenses for which the pictured folk were booked. Most of the people “featured” in this “news” story are not Public Enemy No. n — the charges, when listed, suggest that they are small-time drug dealers, drug users, OWI busts, domestic disturbance busts, people being drunk (or simulating drunkenness) in public, occasional petty larceny or robbery, probation violators, etc.

Sometimes, the people in these pictures look truly awful — used, tired, scared, resigned to misery, perhaps visibly injured in some way related to the arrest. Sometimes, they smile — the nervous grin of someone who can’t quite believe where s/he is, or the knowing smirk of someone who knows s/he has a way out, or the brave, bright face put on one more absolutely rotten day in a lifetime of rotten days. There are young faces, old faces, and faces old before their time in every photo array posted. There are some scary, intense faces alongside pathetic ones with unfocused eyes and slack jaws. There are people with great hair, people with fascinating tattoos, people with unusual and interesting features, and people so nondescript that you probably wouldn’t look at twice if you saw them walking down the street. Sometimes, they are people you actually know (friends, relatives, the neighbor’s nephew, the cool barista at your favorite coffee shop).

The thing they all have in common is this: they are all involuntarily placed in the Internet Pillory by virtue of having been booked into the county jail, and are therefore subject to the wit (such as it is) of internet comment participants both via the Facebook post and on the television station’s own web site. The usual comment section cesspool mix of abuse, speculation, and randomly political crap becomes even more toxic in this case; the people pictured are not the ones who posted the images, and the reason their images are posted is taken as warrant for abuse (they got arrested, therefore they deserve whatever gets dished out, so the thinking goes). Of course, it’s entirely possible that they don’t deserve it, but that thought never stopped a troll — or even an otherwise non-trollish person who feels safely entitled to mock (perceived) losers and criminals. Further, the individuals pictured are (at least theoretically) now open to other forms of reprisal (doxxing, etc.) based on the non-consensual sharing of their information in public in this way.

Because mug shots and booking reports are treated as public records in the state of Iowa, news organizations are permitted to publish them in a number of different forms. Some news organizations, like the Des Moines Register, have policies in place that explicitly recognize that a) not everyone booked is charged, b) not everyone charged is convicted, and c) vita brevis, internet longa.* The Register’s FAQ on the subject states that “all individuals are removed from our site after 60 days. The site is also designed to deter search engines from indexing the records of individual people, to avoid name searches pulling up old charges from our site.” This is at least something, for the sake of the privacy rights of the individuals pictured.

Not all sites posting these shots are quite as conscientious as the Des Moines Register, however — the television station that I refer to above may remove the images from its main web site (that’s not entirely clear, actually), but the Facebook timeline posts themselves (with the pictures, without the charges) appear to remain in perpetuity, waiting to be found by the enterprising seeker. While the Register may attempt quite diligently to protect those who are potentially not guilty, other users of the same publicly available images do not show their diligence or concern. One imagines that this sort of case is the kind of thing that the EU’s “Right to Be Forgotten” ruling attempts to address on a much broader scale than the Des Moines Register‘s mug shot use policy — how do we respect the privacy rights of individuals while balancing those rights against the apparent public interest in knowing relevant information about persons accused and/or convicted of criminal behavior?

The fact that a mug shot and a set of charges — posted, discoverable, and subject to mockery — may be found and used independent of any record of conviction or exoneration is troubling to me. Persons not yet found guilty of a crime are subject to something that is potentially a form of punishment that may far exceed any incurred through the courts (mostly by virtue of being continually renewed and revisited over time as internet users stumble on the information). I can’t in good conscience argue that mug shots and booking information should be hidden or entirely private — I do buy, I think, the claim that there is a genuinely compelling public interest in making this information available.

What worries me is not that the information is public (I think it ought to be) — it’s how the information is public, and how internet users may interact with it in the absence of context, correction, or understanding. Note that I’m not really making any claims about the actual people pictured in these shots. I have no basis on which to make such claims; I have no way of knowing, from the mug shots and listed charges alone, whether I’m looking at Hannibal Lecter, Jr. or some poor schmuck who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s actually the heart of the problem, given what most recent studies suggest about how very bad most folks actually are at doing research on the internet and making good judgments about sources. We don’t know, and we don’t always have the skills needed to find out or the understanding that there is more information to look for.

*For those who find my goofy faux-Latinizing incomprehensible: nothing is ever truly gone from the internet.


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. For now, I labor at a fairly interesting administrative job in order to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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