Thoughts on the Pitt Meadows case

A disturbing story came out of Canada last week; a 16 year old girl was reportedly drugged and gang-raped at an illegal rave in Pitt Meadows, near Vancouver. That’s horrifying enough of course, but what followed made things worse; pictures of the alleged incident were posted on Facebook, and while they were taken down by the site soon after, the images had already gone viral and spread world-wide.

It’s hard to imagine what the people who downloaded and distributed these images were thinking, but I suspect that few of them would see themselves as publishers of violent child pornography, which is what their actions amount to. It seems to be another example of the distancing effect of virtual communication, something we’ve commented on before. The medium can detach people from the emotional content of the information it carries, so that everything is reduced to affectless sensation, and a brutal sexual assault becomes just another transient distraction.

It’s only a tiny minority of internet users who are as morally blunted as this of course, as the outraged reaction to this story shows. I would guess that in most cases the people who passed on the pictures were acting thoughtlessly rather than malevolently, and felt guilty once they had considered it for more than the few seconds it takes to click “Fw:”.

It’s open to debate whether modern social media have created this type of behaviour or merely facilitated it. I would say it is a mixture of the two; the likes of Facebook and Twitter may not be responsible for what people think, but they do lower the barrier between thoughts and actions, allowing impulses that would previously have gone unexpressed to find their way to the surface.

There will be those who point to the Pitt Meadows case as an another example of how our society is going to the dogs, as traditional bonds of family and community are displaced by empathy-free Facebook “friendship”. The counter-argument, which I tend to favour, is that, far from weakening our ability to relate to our fellow humans, the new channels of communication opened up by social media, untrammelled as they are by limits of culture or geography, actually provide us with a greater opportunity to experience our shared humanity. Sometimes this process will highlight the darker side of our collective character, but mostly it has the potential to be a force for good.

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