Our morbid curiosity an accident waiting to happen on social media

‘Consensus outrage,” my friend said, as we realised that while we were meant to be talking to each other, we were listening to the conversation at the next table in the coffee shop. Three couples were at that table, and they were discussing the presence, on social media, of photographs of a four-car fatal crash on the M50.

Not just photographs, one of them said, but videos. Can you imagine?

Everybody could imagine, and a moment of appalled silence ensued, while the coffee drinkers considered the pain of the family of the dead driver when they were shown the pictures and learned that anybody else could look at them, too.

This is just not acceptable and something should be done, one of the people at the next table said. The gardaí were on it, someone else said. The gardaí were going to check CCTV cameras to identify the cars that slowed down to take the photos or the footage that ended up on social media. But it’s probably not illegal to upload that kind of stuff, a third person at the table said, and then added a guess that the guards could get them for using their mobile phoness while driving. Maybe, if they did, the case would get into the media, and it would serve as a warning to everybody else. Well, at least to the kind of people who would do such a horrible thing.

I suggested to my friend that the approach attributed to An Garda Síochána had worked pretty well in the case of Al Capone, who was eventually brought to book, not for any of his high crimes, but for tax evasion.

Which, my friend fair-mindedly conceded, had sent a clear message to the Mafia, and other crooks in the US, during Prohibition.

That message being: Think strategically. You can continue to commit murder and mayhem, as long as you get a good tax accountant. It’s a fair point. Whenever the right-minded talk of “sending out a message”, it tends to make the message-sender feel great, while actually being markedly ineffective. It’s usually the wrong message going to the wrong cohort at the wrong time.

The gardaí may — and we must hope they do — identify and punish the heartless neophiliacs responsible for the M50 photographs. But this may send another wrong message: that the few minutes directly after this crash just happened to coincide with the passage along that stretch of the motorway of an untypical bunch of socially irresponsible, crudely heartless, social media-addicted voyeurs, because, of course, no normal people would ever gawk at and record such a tragedy. Only exceptional perverts would do it.

Believing that makes us feel good. We’re on the right side of this one, and on the other side sit the rubber-neckers who are always egging to see dreadful details as they pass the site of a car crash. The problem is that, statistically, the rubber-neckers would seem to be in the majority.

Any crash on the M50 reduces all of Dublin to a near standstill, not because it’s impossible to pass the crashed cars, but because it’s impossible to pass the gawkers who slow down or stop their own vehicles, with or without using their mobile phones, lest they miss any detail that could be passed on to others

Many people, this weekend, who would be horrified at the suggestion that they would take a photograph while passing a fatal car crash, were nonetheless eager to hear the details of the crash, learn the sequence of what happened, and share it. Many people, too, who would themselves not take such a picture, let alone upload it, nevertheless could not resist looking at it on their smartphones, using the excuse that this did not actually add to the distress of the dead driver’s family.

The excuses are as varied as the opportunities to disrespect the dead. Serious history books and TV documentaries include photographs of Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, after they were murdered by partisans and strung up from the roof of a garage.

But that’s OK, because they were fascists and it was a long time ago. In addition, it does’t feel so bad, because the pictures are in black and white, but in the recently produced coffee-table book, The Colour of Time, a new history of the world from 1850 – 1960, the most ghastly of these post-mortem photographs has been expertly colourised, so the two look recently dead.

We don’t see close-up shots of assassinated politicians or hoodlums anymore, but we saw such photographs — in an Irish tabloid newspaper, of a deceased gang member in his car — within, I believe, the last decade. The mainstream editor who published those photographs would have been part of a continuum going back a century or more, that continuum believing that the families of criminals had one option to them if they didn’t want to see their relative’s corpse in the paper: don’t buy the paper. Or, if they spotted it in a newsagents, look away.

We traditionally outsourced the invasion of the privacy of the dying or dead to photo journalists, which allowed us to slurp up the fruits of their labour, while condemning them outright. Those who accidentally captured a tragedy while it happened — like Abraham Zapruder, who took the most famous 26 seconds of footage in history, of the assassination of then US president John F Kennedy, in 1963, — were given a guilt-free pass, on the basis that it all came as a complete surprise to the man with the movie camera.

No harm to the late Mr Zapruder, but it was a remarkably profitable surprise. His 8mm film sold the next day to Life magazine for a sum that would be close in value to $1.25m today.

The explosion and fire that destroyed the airship the Hindenberg, in 1937, is just one of the internet listicles of horrifying deaths. The constant market for vicarious morbid thrills never goes away. Every day, for example, tourists in their dozens stop at the point where actor James Dean was killed in a car crash.

The difference between the James Dean tourism and the photography on the M50 is twofold. James Dean was world-famous, whereas the driver on the M50 was an anonymous private citizen. And the M50 incident was filmed just a few days ago, whereas the film star died way back in 1955.

While not seeking to ameliorate the responsibility of the ghouls, it is possible some of the people who shared what they filmed last week believed that only their friend would see it, who would never let it go further.

They might have been horrified to find out that it reached the family of the dead driver.

Or not. As the old Ulster saying has it, “It’s easy to sleep on another man’s wound…”

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