This is what it’s like when a covert image of you goes viral online
When Rad Konieczny first saw a screenshot of the video, he felt physically sick.
A friend of a friend was the first to spot it. They told the 24-year-old set/costume designer that there was a tweet out there with him in it, but it wasn’t until later that evening — when people started messaging him en masse — that Konieczny actually saw it.
“I knew it was meant in a bad way, I just knew,” he told Mashable. “When you’re bullied for years you sense these things.”
The now-deleted video was taken at a bar in London. It showed Konieczny facing away from the camera, talking to a group of friends. He was wearing a pair of cut-off denim shorts, and the person taking the video was laughing at his outfit.
“I had to claim it back! It’s my behind after all.”
“Once I saw it properly I was actually disappointed he wasn’t saying anything more problematic,” said Konieczny. “I was prepared for much worse (which I guess just shows how used I am to that kind of behaviour).”
Rather than ignoring the video, Konieczny decided to weigh in. He responded to the original tweet directly, attaching a photograph of himself in the same pair of shorts. He said there were two reasons he chose to do this.
“I think that when recording and publishing the video [the uploader] was probably convinced there’s no chance I’ll ever see it, so he’s perfectly safe from getting exposed or receiving any clapback,” Konieczny explained. “I mean, what are the odds in a city as big as London… and yet! There I am, right on his tweet.
“Secondly, I just wanted to get in there. I mean, the whole thing was getting so much attention, I didn’t want him to have it all for himself, I had to claim it back! It’s my behind after all.”
Before it was deleted, the video of Konieczny had been retweeted hundreds of times. It also had a huge number of comments from other Twitter users. The vast majority of them were from people condemning it.
“When I realised the original post was clearly meant in a sort of malicious way, I was genuinely expecting a wave of homophobia, body-shaming, and whatnot,” Konieczny said. “I cannot explain how shocked I was by the support and involvement. I just hope, I really hope we can carry that attitude onto calling people out and stopping them from doing things like that — in real time though.”
Ultimately, Konieczny said he wouldn’t have minded the video staying up.
“At the end of the day, I don’t look bad in it and if anything it’s a great advertisement for myself and an awful, awful representation of him as a human being,” he said.
The trend of recording strangers in public
What happened to Konieczny is nothing new. Members of the public have been posting images online, en masse, since the days of MySpace and Photobucket. Some of those images will feature people who know there’s a camera pointed at them — others won’t. And with the rise of social media and smartphone cameras, the chances of someone sharing an image of you without your knowledge will only have increased over the past decade.
In July alone, there have been several examples of photos and videos going viral that single out a particular person in a public setting. Unlike the video of Konieczny, not all of these necessarily come from a mean place. But they do all have two problematic elements in common: the person being broadcast to the world is unaware that they’re being captured, and — crucially — their face is identifiable.
“I’ve just seen my hero on the London-Paddington train,” wrote one Twitter user in early July. “He is eating a whole Vienetta, with a metal spoon (obvious advanced preparation). Absolute legend.”
The tweet came with a video showing the man in question — face and all. At the time of writing, it’s been retweeted almost 5,000 times, and had over 1.5 million views. It’s also still live, despite calls from many people in the replies for it to be deleted.
“There is a new and alarming trend of taking pictures of strangers and sharing their image across social media platforms,” Siân Brooke, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, told Mashable.
“How this can be effectively dealt with is a difficult problem for the average user. There are inconsistencies across different platforms on what a site considers appropriate or not, and the way in which this can be dealt with. A second level of difficulty in thinking how to address this problem is that it is simply not illegal to take photos or videos of a person in a public space which you have easy access to.”
The other issue, Brooke explained, lies in the way algorithms work.
“The way in which social media and platforms like Twitter are built means that even those protesting the sharing of the video contribute to how the content spreads,” she said. “By following hashtags and interacting with posts, we are helping spread the media to our followers and across social media.
“Simply not interacting will do more to stop the spread of offensive content than protesting its existence.”
When viral tweets backfire
Trains, it seems, are a popular setting for covert images of strangers.
On July 25 — the hottest in the UK on record — speaker and author Ed Gillespie was on his way to Cambridge to discuss the climate emergency with a colleague.
“I have learned a hard lesson in the respect of other’s privacy and the right to anonymity.”
“I got onto what was actually a pleasantly cool and airconditioned train carriage after the fierce sunshine of Kings Cross and I was slightly bemused to see the man sat on the table opposite had removed his vest, hung it on the coat hook and was working half naked!” Gillespie told Mashable. “For me it was a perfect ‘vignette’ of the climate crisis, and how we all have to adapt, in this case stripping off, to much hotter summers. It was ironic that it was also actually cool on the train. But it was a rather apt ‘zeitgeist’ image, which as a climate activist myself I thought I’d idly share. More fool me.”
Gillespie’s image quickly went viral. It showed a side view of the man sat at a table on the train, working on his laptop while topless. His face is visible in the photo. Gillespie said that the fact he didn’t consider this more carefully before posting the image is a sincere regret.
“I must confess it was wholly remiss of me not to pixelate his face in hindsight,” he said. “To be honest I hadn’t thought that through and I have learned a hard lesson in the respect of other’s privacy and the right to anonymity.”
As the retweets grew, so did the replies from people urging Gillespie to take down the tweet. Eventually word got back to the subject of the photo himself, who then tweeted at Gillespie directly.
“Ed, I’m not sure why you felt entitled to photograph me and share it on Twitter without my permission, nor why others feel entitled to comment,” he wrote.
“It was a viper’s nest”
As the replies started stacking up, Gillespie had mixed feelings. On the one hand, the photo was taken in a public space. The man had removed his vest, as Gillespie described, in a “perhaps admirably, unselfconscious style.” But on the other hand, Gillespie realised the man was also entitled not to be identified. When the subject of the photo responded, Gillespie said he felt “ashamed and embarrassed.” He tweeted back immediately with an apology. But he didn’t delete the original photo straight away.
“I hesitated momentarily, partly I confess as I did wish to actually see the debate – grizzly though it was, and in deleting the tweet immediately I wouldn’t be able to do that,” Gillespie admitted. “It also seemed like it might be ‘shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted’. But also because I was with my brother by this point and we did attempt a maybe regrettable ‘joke’ by posting a half naked image of me in reciprocity. This was clearly funnier in conception than execution. And delayed the deletion momentarily.”
Eventually, Gillespie said, the penny dropped. “Making weak and feeble gags wasn’t going to cut it,” he said. “I just had to delete the tweet and try and shut the whole thing down.”
Shutting the whole thing down, however, proved problematic. By that point a number of news organisations had already been in touch, and the photo was published by the likes of the Mail Online, The Metro, and The Sun. It’s still live, at the time of writing, on all three sites.
Over the next 24 hours, Gillespie sent around 25 tweets apologising to various people criticising him for sharing the photo. He also sent an additional apology to the man in the image, including an offer to donate to a charity of his choosing. Mashable has reached out to the man in the image, and we will update this story if we hear back from him.
Gillespie described the reaction he received on Twitter as “a viper’s nest”.
“I was astonished at the ferocity of attack,” he said. “People were contacting my publisher demanding they drop me as an author, retweeting old tweets of mine with highly charged accusatory commentary on top, essentially trying to destroy my career and livelihood.”
Many of the angry responses, Gillespie explained, took place in the hours when he was offline — which meant he was unable to respond or apologise.
“Trial by twitter is truly mob-rule, a bit like medieval witch trials,” he said. “If he’s not there to defend himself, he’s guilty and we burn him. If he is there to defend himself, he’s a dreadful guilty apologist and we burn him.”
The whole situation is a grim example of the way things can escalate online. Gillespie’s initial tweet — although obviously misjudged — didn’t appear to be malicious in its nature. But it quickly led to embarrassment on both sides, and anger from all directions.
“Reactions are extreme and polarising as social media are still (relatively) ‘new’,” Dr Mariann Hardey, Associate Professor in Digital Information Systems at Durham University, told Mashable. “Being recorded in public in the UK might be the norm by CCTV, but having something recorded and posted online gives a new permanency that, in effect, bursts the private bubble of the individual filmed for the ‘glory’ or ‘karma’ of the image taker.”
“I am deeply sorry for the embarrassment caused”
Siân Brooke, meanwhile, explained that the polarisation of viewpoints on social media is currently a popular topic among researchers.
“The fact that communication platforms such as Twitter seem so removed from every day, face-to-face interaction means that polarisation can result in extreme hostile behaviour and personal attacks,” she said. “Communication scholars propose that people are more likely to see themselves as part of a crowd online, more easily slipping into a ‘mob mentality’ that can lead to anti-social and aggressive behaviour.”
Brooke explained that the phenomenon of “filter bubbles” — the echo chambers created by algorithms that are designed to show us things they believe we want to see — only fuels this behaviour.
Looking at the explosive reaction to Gillespie’s tweet, it’s not hard to believe this.
Now that several days have passed, he told us he feels “pretty contrite and not a little bruised” by the whole experience.
“I am deeply sorry for the embarrassment caused to the poor bloke,” he concluded. “In hindsight I might not have bothered posting a wry observational image if I had known the violent body-shaming accusations that it would create.
“I certainly would have respectfully anonymised the image. And I would have deleted the tweet immediately when requested.”