Facebook still lets you take photos, even if they can ruin your life

The mug shots are a snapshot of the worst days in people’s lives. They are removed when someone is accused of a crime but not convicted; fodder for the public’s voyeuristic impulses, even if they don’t serve the public.

No matter what happens next – whether the person is acquitted, convicted, served a sentence, or has a criminal record removed – many of these photographs continue to circulate on the Internet. They can appear for years, including when searching, when someone is looking for a job, when they are trying to build a secure life, or even in the news when they become victims of a crime. They can make people the targets of racism, threats and public humiliation.

In recent years, there has been a move away from the public release of photographs in the media and some law enforcement agencies. Several news outlets have said they will no longer publish daily photo galleries or publish pictures of people who have been arrested but not yet convicted of a crime.

But that reckoning has yet to hit one of the most popular platforms in the world: Facebook.

The platform still allows law enforcement to post photos of people who have not been convicted of a crime. If a local law enforcement agency does not actively post photos on Facebook, sometimes individual users do – a network of amateur “local photo” pages has spread across the platform.

Often, the person in the picture is recognized or even tagged in the comments, causing clutter from members of their community. The more people comment and react to the snap, the further the post will spread across the social media platform. Even if the person has never been convicted of a crime, there is no mechanism to remove the image.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment, but often states that it is a neutral platform and not a publisher who makes editorial decisions about the content on their site. In fact, Facebook moderates the content, and the company policies that prohibit certain content he considers too harmful. While enforcement is inconsistent, Facebook claims to ban bullying, harassment, hate speech and messages containing personal or confidential information which may result in physical or financial harm.

Mug shots usually contain or invite all of the above. The pages, run by people who take photos from local sheriff’s department websites and post them on Facebook, are attracting tens of thousands of users who gleefully ogle arrests in their communities. Because photo pages are location-based, Facebook users often recognize the people in the photos and leave intrusive comments about their lives.

“She’s trash because someone else is raising her kids,” commented a member of the Niagara County Mugshots group, which has 24,000 followers. “Dude didn’t give her d, she tried to take it, I guessed from her expression,” another member of the group commented on another picture. The Niagara County photo page links to a merchandise page that sells T-shirts that read “PUBLICLY SUMMON YOUR LOCAL SEX OFFENDER.”

Even when members of the group do not recognize the arrested person, the comments usually turn into hateful sarcasm. “Be sure to sanitize it before releasing it,” one commenter wrote. “Another Polish monster removed from society. But is justice really done? Locking up a Pole is like putting a dog in jail. They have no idea what they did wrong and why they are here,” wrote another.

“They produce content just like any other content creator. You need to get clicks, you need to engage.”

— Sarah Esther Lageson, Associate Professor at Rutgers, on law enforcement Facebook pages.

Even some law enforcement officials have acknowledged the harm caused by the distribution of photographs on the Internet. Harris County Sheriff’s Office Representative praised Houston Chronicle for dropping photo galleries. San Francisco Police Department announced in 2020, he will no longer post photos without an immediate need for public safety. Next year California legislators limited law enforcement agencies from posting photos of people arrested on charges of non-violent acts on social media.

But across the country, cops continue to post photos of the arrests they make as a way to promote their work—at the expense of those charged but not convicted of a crime. The Lee County Sheriff’s Office in Florida regularly posts photos with obscene captions on its Facebook page, where it has 205,000 followers. The sheriff’s office calls the people it arrests “thugs” and “criminals”. The captions are written in such a way as to suggest that the goal is for the photos to go viral. The posts describe the alleged crimes in theatrical detail and include hashtags and jokes about the defendants, including referring to the man arrested over Christmas as “The Grinch.”

Facebook users often cheer law enforcement and thank them for keeping their community safe — even in cases where it is not clear that the person arrested was a greater threat.

The Facebook platform allows police departments to post their own content rather than relying on the media to cover their arrests and messaging, says Sara Esther Lageson, an assistant professor at Rutgers University who researches the rise in online crime data, pictures and convictions.

“They control the storytelling and use Facebook and photos to show how busy they are. They produce content just like any other content creator. You need to get clicks, you need to engage,” Lageson said. “And for what? Who’s bearing the brunt of the problem? It’s the person who’s going to be publicly embarrassed.”

Lee County Sheriff’s Office does not delete comments, even if they are racist or threatening. Their photo posts include comments such as “Send Pedro back to Haiti”, “I hope he gets what he deserves in jail, I hope he learns what it’s like to be raped by other inmates”, “Illegal?” and “Will he get a slap in the face because he is a minority, destitute?”

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office frequently releases photographs of children, many of whom will never be found guilty of a crime. Even those who are later found guilty may have the right to have their juvenile record deleted as an adult.

Caitlin Mumma, a public relations officer at the sheriff’s office, said they are trying to remove photos of individuals whose files are being deleted, but not those who have never been convicted of a crime after their arrest, “because it’s still a public file, even if charges are brought.” fallen. ”

Last year, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office posted a photo on social media of a 12-year-old boy accused of making threats of violence, with a caption that included the boy’s home address. A photo of the child, taken on what was probably one of the worst days of his life, has been shared 27,000 times and has 45,000 comments. Several commentators took it upon themselves to diagnose the child with severe mental illness, citing the lack of tears in the picture.

The 12-year-old boy’s parents could not be contacted for comment, but Lageson has done extensive research into how people react to having their photos explode online. “They become completely depressed. And even if they feel it’s a violation of privacy or due process, their instinct is to avoid it as much as possible,” Lageson said.

This avoids any circumstance that might cause others to discover the photograph. “Online dating, volunteering at schools, churches, applying for promotions, applying for safer or more stable housing or jobs, these are all real things that people say they stopped doing because of it,” Lageson said. . “And, of course, all of this makes us safer, because all these factors prevent crime.”

In 2020, Facebook announced it is accepting proposals from scientists seeking funding for research related to digital privacy. Lageson submitted a proposal that included creating a process to allow people to request that their photos be removed from the platform, especially if their post has been removed.

Lageson did not receive a grant.