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Scourge of naked selfies

Selfie is a relatively new word for a photograph of oneself, taken on a smartphone, tablet or other such device and circulated via the internet. One of the most publicised examples has been the selfie taken by the glamorous Danish Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, with Barack Obama and David Cameron at the funeral of Nelson Mandela. A few days ago Times of Malta featured a selfie taken by Maureen Saguna of Gozo with Pope Francis in Rome.

While the former caused a media storm and the latter served to demonstrate the approachability of Francis, none was in themselves offensive or harmful. This is the way of the modern world and the spread of social media. The information age has allowed almost limitless access to people and provides the means for them to share such data with each other, and beyond.

There is a marked element of narcissism about selfies, but on the whole they tend to be innocent and provide much joy to those who share them with friends and family on social networking sites. But there is also an ugly side to this modern phenomenon which has now, belatedly, reached Malta.

At the risk of introducing more new words and expressions, selfies can becoming ‘sexting’ (that is, the taking and distribution of ‘naked selfies’, where the subject photographs himself, herself or even themselves in the nude).

While the idea of sharing a naked selfie may itself be tasteless and possibly nasty, many people do this. There is no law to stop consenting adults from privately doing so, unless the pictures are deemed to be pornographic or obscene.

Such pictures, however, can lead to ‘revenge porn’, where sexually explicit photographs or naked selfies are shared online without the consent of the individual pictured.

Revenge porn is typically uploaded by jilted lovers or hackers, or by those who wish to use the pictures to bully individuals they wish to hurt (known as ‘cyberbullying’).

Inevitably, there is also a commercial incentive for a porn internet site to post pictures of naked selfies as a means of attracting customers. This has happened in the case of a social networking site which posted a number of explicit naked selfies of Maltese women, apparently without their consent, sparking fears of revenge porn or cyberbullying.

What, if anything, can be done to stop this pernicious practice?

Like almost everything concerning the internet, the options open for exercising control are limited and legally fraught.

Distributing or publicly displaying pornographic material is prohibited by law in Malta. But much depends on how the police interpret it in this more enlightened age. Moreover, the processing of any image without the consent of the data subject could lead to action under Malta’s Data Protection Act. However if, as seems highly likely, the blog is not based in Malta, problems over legal jurisdiction almost certainly arise. The legal route to a solution appears closed or limited.

However, like most aspects of social behaviour, education and common sense offer the best way of avoiding the unintended consequences of such risky and sometimes impetuous action. Sexting and naked selfies may appear to be harmless – even perhaps loving – fun, at the time. But they can lead to cyberbullying and worse.

Young people must be taught from an early age, both at home and at school, that they are ultimately responsible for how they behave, and that naked selfies hold out the prospect of serious, hurtful and embarrassing consequences which it would be wise to avoid.

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