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Virality’s Darkness: Balancing Privacy and Surveillance

“The desire for virality has led to a breakdown of previously respected boundaries and a disregard for privacy and security.”

We’ve all been there. You see something absolutely bizarre in public and your first instinct is to pull out your phone. We don’t take a second to think about the implications of our careless consumption and posting. All we do is justify our impulsive actions by thinking “if they did it in public, they must be okay with it being on social media.” Wrong. In the digital age of leaked sex tapes and outrageous presidential tweets, humans are conditioned to think there is no longer a clear line of what to post and what not to post on the internet. There is a breaking down of boundaries across social media platforms as people are willing to post anything they think the algorithms will favor and ultimately give them a taste of the quick digital spotlight. Whether you posted it yourself or someone posted it of you without your consent, the motivation to become viral has created a dark side of the internet that requires exploration. 

When it comes to the impact of virality, it is important to recognize that a range of intensity exists from filming art without artists’ consent to popular influencers spreading misinformation. The major pitfalls of this social phenomena include misinformation on such subjects as politics, health and financial planning, all of which impact one’s personal choices. In addition, cruel attacks on people’s character and blatant hate speech have become the norm on the internet. This leads to an increased pressure to conform, increased potential for physical harm and increased theft of content on the internet.

Before measuring the ways in which virality has invaded personal privacy, it is important to know the media ethics behind recording another human being. The United States Federal Wiretap Act was created in the 1960s to prevent the United States government from recording phone lines and invading the population’s privacy. The act makes it “illegal for anyone to record electronic, telephonic, or oral communication secretly in settings where other parties can reasonably expect the settings to be private.” There have been many rules and exceptions to the rules as we navigate through the new digital age. Michale Chen, the head of growth of Notta, a speech to text online converter, investigates the murky ethical dilemma of recording people you don’t know. “The short answer to whether it’s illegal to video record someone without their consent is it’s typically okay to record others in public, but not in private without their consent,” Chen said in a June 2022 article for Notta. However, even if it’s legal, it’s important to consider the potential invasion of privacy and ethical implications of recording people without their knowledge or consent. Posting content of someone without their consent and having it go viral can lead to a range of negative consequences, including damage to the person’s reputation, public shaming, cyberbullying and even potential legal action.

Generation Z, or people born between the years of 1997 and 2013, grew up during the emergence of Apple products and the introduction to mass social media. We learned how easy it was to post funny videos of our siblings on Vine or write poorly written fanfictions on Wattpad without a care in the world about our personal safety. We were told by our parents that as long as our last name and home address weren’t included in our social media content, we were free to post any Tumblr stock image or “fierce” selfie our heart desired. As we grow up and enter the workforce, Gen Z has collectively become very strategic and performative about what we post and what the world gets to see. The idea of someone catching me casually singing Blink-182, like Halsey did in a random mall in 2016, makes me physically cringe. There is a new psychological fear of being weird or being your authentic self in public because you don’t want to add anything to your digital footprint that doesn’t fit within the parameters of your curated self. “We’re living in sort of a self-induced surveillance state, where no longer is it necessarily the government panopticon, but it’s now everyone else getting their phones out and filming and surveilling, constantly,” said Jenna Drenten, an associate professor in the Quinlan School of Business at the Loyola University Chicago, in a February 2023 Buzzfeed article by Clarissa-Jan Lim. At the same time, it has occurred to all of us that fame is fame. The Halsey mall video did ultimately help her launch her career. Sure, she became a meme, but a meme is a sign of influence and social relevance. Gen Z battles their conflicting feelings towards social media often: If I post whatever I want, I increase my chances to accidentally become famous, but if I post whatever I want, I risk being made fun of and my future job recruiters stumbling across a very embarrassing TikTok where I’m oversharing. Since the popular emergence of TikTok in 2019, these two feelings control our behavior both in public and on our social media accounts, ultimately leading to group conformity.

One of the major threats of virality promoting unethical behavior on social media is the spreading of misinformation and hate speech. The state of journalism and fact checking are under threat because of high status politicians and celebrities using various social platforms to spread misinformation and disinformation to the population. The best example of this can be seen with the former US president Donald Trump. Before Trump got suspended on Twitter, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Misinformation Review flagged Trump’s tweets between November 2020 to to January 2021 to see how much of his social media content related to election misinformation. “Twitter announced that it had labeled roughly 300,000 election-related tweets as disputed and potentially misleading,” as a result of Trump’s online presence, according to research published in the Misinformation Review. The effect of Trump’s careless and deliberately misleading tweeting doesn’t end there. After tweeting that the 2020 election was rigged and that there would be a “big protest in D.C. on January 6th” and telling supporters to “be there, will be wild,” more than 2,000 people stormed the U.S. Capitol. A single tweet from a political actor prompted a day where the future of democracy was urgently threatened. The January 6th Capitol Riot unveiled the danger of Trump and the power he has to create mass hysteria among his followers. Trump is not the first or last high-status person to spread misinformation in hopes of sparking reactions from their numerous followers. Andrew Tate is a British-American former professional kickboxer that is known by his followers as being the “king of toxic masculinity.” Tate rose to fame by offering advice to mostly male fans in the age range of 11 to 18 on how to “improve their life” and become the men they are entitled to be. Tate is a “self-described misogynist, comparing women to dogs, saying women shouldn’t be allowed to drive, and claiming that men have ‘authority’ over their female partners,” according to a January 2023 Guardian article by Shanti Das. The controversial influencer was recently arrested for rape charges and connections to a human trafficking operation in Romania; however, tweets from his account are still being posted regularly. Tate’s misogynistic influence on the younger male population solidifies the concept that anyone can become viral for posting extreme content and recruit a following regardless of how incorrect or harmful their information is. 

The performative act of posting certain content for your viewers or fans is nothing new. However, performative posting can go too far and be considered a threat to mental and physical safety. When I think about clout chasing and performative posting, my mind immediately goes to David Dobrik and his YouTube “Vlog Squad” of paid friends. Over the past 8 years, Dobrik has made videos of everything from filling his giant pool with elephant toothpaste to harming his “friends” as collateral for the sake of views. Dobrik “plays the role of the approachable guy who is buddies with all the popular kids but still seems like a good person, the Nick Carraway of the Gen Z influencer world” wrote Rebecca Jennings in a March 2021 article for Vox. He has built the ethos of being one of the few Youtubers that is a “good guy.” Dobrik has gone to great lengths to increase his views, leading to him endangering his squad of quasi-famous friends. Dobrik’s videos include “pranks” such as tricking his “friends” to kiss people without consent for the sake of views, which starts begging the question if the “pranks” Dobrik and his crew pull start seeming more like exercises in stretching the limits of consent. Many Vlog Squad watchers reached their limit when Dobrik was accused of being a part of a sexual assault scandal in which a 20-year-old woman went with a group of her friends to an apartment to film with Dobrik and friends. She and a friend went into a room with one of the Vlog Squad members, Dom Zeglaitis, where he allegedly had sex with her while other members of the Vlog Squad listened outside. The woman said that she “became so incapacitated with alcohol supplied by Vlog Squad members that she could not consent to sex.” The resulting video was titled “SHE SHOULD NOT HAVE PLAYED WITH FIRE!!!” and portrayed the scene as a threesome plot. The video was later deleted after she objected to it but not before it reached 5 million views, according to Jennings. Dobrik’s power-hungry posting highlights the inability of content creators to obtain explicit and enthusiastic consent from all parties involved in the creation of their online content. 

The line of consent online is tampered with often in the developing digital world. Another ethical dilemma involving consent can be seen with the tendency of parents to publicize their children’s lives on social media. While some family vloggers feature their children in some of their content, other accounts are devoted to being all about their children, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and digital kidnapping. A June 2022 CBS News article referenced this phenomenon as “sharenting,” which was defined as parents publicizing “sensitive content about their young children on internet platforms, often without consent as the kids may be too young to give it or understand the full scope of what they’re consenting to.” While there are minimal short-term effects of posting your child’s image on social media, the long-term effects are daunting, as “studies estimate ‘sharenting’ will play a role in two-thirds of identity fraud cases facing young people by 2030,” according to CBS. For the sake of followers and profile engagement, parents are unintentionally exposing their children to the risk of hacking, facial recognition tracking and pedophilia, wrote Aria Mallorca in an April 2022 article for PR Values. The idea of posting your child without giving any thought to consent because of their age creates a new ethical argument about when consent starts for a person and what rights a child should be guaranteed.

When Lea Michele first got the role of Fanny Brice, it was all over TikTok to the point where I was convinced I’d seen most of her performance through my TikTok feed alone. Michele is not the first — and will not be the last — actor to experience her scenes being recorded and put online for personal fame and social media interactions. Posting content on social media without proper attribution to the original creator and achieving viral status not only violates the intellectual property rights of the original creator but can also lead to loss of credibility and trustworthiness. Playbill states that recording Broadway performances is forbidden for many reasons, including actors’ safety and intellectual property issues regarding the shows’ creators, according to a June 2011 article by Robert Simonson. As a result, production companies must navigate a complex legal landscape to ensure the safety of their performers and the protection of their intellectual property rights. The social media platform TikTok has increased the chances of a performance being recorded as people have realized how easy it is to make money on the app. According to a March 2023 report from Next Gen Personal Finance, “TikTok pays around $0.02 and $0.04 for every 1,000 views.” If a TikTok of Michele belting a high note gets enough views, TikTok users can make a significant amount of money for simply recording a performance. 

The desire for virality has led to a breakdown of previously respected boundaries and a disregard for privacy and security. It’s necessary that we pause and reflect on the implications of our actions online and strive towards a more responsible and ethical use of social media. Although it’s difficult to quantify the extent of viral harm caused by social media because it is constantly evolving, it’s crucial to highlight the significant risks to privacy and security stemming from the widespread desire for online recognition. The pervasive influence of this social phenomenon contributes to numerous adverse outcomes that are serious enough to warrant our scrutiny and, where possible, the introduction of new regulations and legislation.

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