Looking back at 2018 | How risqué video coloured the news

The ubiquity of smartphone technology and the ability to transmit or stream private videoes or public acts of debauchery can turn small peccadilloes into viral sensations

Godwin Schembri’s mockery of the Armed Forces ‘gate without a wall’ at the Pembroke shooting ranges, divided public opinion
Godwin Schembri’s mockery of the Armed Forces ‘gate without a wall’ at the Pembroke shooting ranges, divided public opinion

So what made that video a friend sent on WhatsApp capture the nation’s imagination to become a viral sensation and news event?

How did ‘doughnut guy’ – his pot-belly gluttony, his gaze of contempt to the admonishing  girlfriend – become a thing? How did the former AFM soldier Godwin Schembri become a victim of officious discipline for putting out nothing more than a nugget of good old common sense?
Such is the power of the viral video, now not just a part of our vocabulary, but a fact of life in the powerful sharing network of Maltese WhatsApp users, where some end up becoming news headlines, while others have real-life consequences on the unwitting – and sometimes – willing actors.

Certainly, Godwin Schembri’s mockery of the Armed Forces ‘gate without a wall’ at the Pembroke shooting ranges, divided public opinion. A private video of him driving his fellow soldiers out of the shooting ranges from the side of a newly-erected gate, mocking the futile expense, made many laugh. But as the video creeped out of WhatsApp and into Facebook, the natural ecosystem for Maltese social media users, Schembri was sacked.

Public opinion was split: Schembri was entitled to make his colleagues laugh in what was a private mobile phone video taken on the spot; others insisted he was guilty of lack of discipline and deserved some form of reprimand.

But the Schembri video also illustrates the increased frequency of leaked videos and photos, some depicting nudity and sexual acts, that seems to have become regular over the past five years. The mobile phone gives intruders and eavesdroppers a unique opportunity to share the most egregious forms of peccadilloes: the most glaring example being two youths engaging in full sex in the early hours of the morning as workers are starting their day on the steps of a Paceville establishment; the other sharers are those who wilfully boast of their sexual conquests, with women usually the victims, and the sharers conveniently anonymised.

Arguably, it is the advance of smartphone technology and such devices becoming an extension of oneself, that makes the possibility of being filmed and turned into a viral sensation all the more possible.

Police inspector Paul Caruana, a lecturer in criminology, says the main factor contributing to a video going viral in Malta is the local context. “In this day and age, people can find anything they want on the internet… but what makes images and videos more appealing is the Maltese individual in them,” he said.

Caruana says the proximity Maltese nationals live in, produces a tight-knit network that makes the scandal of viral video even more titillating.

“It all boils down to human nature. Back in the day you would go to the village piazza and get your daily dose of information there. Today we have group chats, we have social media, and so content spreads in a more rapid fashion as the audience is bigger,” he said.
“Watching someone you know revealing themselves on camera is appealing, not for the sexual aspect but for the informative trait it holds. Information is power, it has always been like that,” he said.

Police inspector Timothy Zammit, who leads the force’s cybercrime unit, agrees, calling the images circulating on WhatsApp chats a type of “currency”.

“Once a video or photo starts circulating, owning the content gives you ‘power’ over those that don’t. Therefore, we are witnessing a rising trend in people exchanging photos and videos, in turn making the content much harder to contain,” Zammit said.

Zammit also explains the legality surrounding possession of images and videos. “Sex-ting” – chatting of a sexual nature – between partners is not illegal and in the instance that one is in a group chat where such content is being shared, he or she is still not subject to criminal prosecution.

On the other hand, if those pictures are sent to another group chat, that would be a criminal act. “The law only bars content related to underage people, where the production, possession and distribution of such content remains illegal,” Zammit explained.

Due to the fluidity of social media structures, the procedure in arraigning cases is not set in stone.

Beyond the legality of the matter, Zammit insisted on compassion when faced with the choice of forwarding the images or not. “We have to be socially responsible. Try to put yourself in a situation where the person in the image or video is a close family member: would you enjoy seeing the content going around?” Zammit said.

Zammit recalled various cases petty arguments lead to private content being shared on private forums, resulting in a nationwide leak: whether it is for revenge or plain heinousness, leaks of compromising material will happen.

“In my work as inspector, we are also seeing the formation of secret groups on Facebook which are admin controlled and require the members to submit content in order to make them an accomplice the case of a leak,” he said.

“We live in a society which claims to be liberal, but our mentality shows us to be quite a conservative country,” Zammit said, pointing to the pleasure people take in scandal.

He also blames the media for jumping on the bandwagon when a video goes viral. “I recall one video depicting a postal worker performing sexual acts, making the rounds. Some media outlets spent three days posting articles about it,” he said.

Timothy Zammit said that when this occurs, people pass through secondary victimisation, condemned to becoming unwitting media sensations or having to experience the shame once again when the video crops up.

“To you it may seem like a funny joke, but behind that video there’s someone fighting for their dignity and one can never underestimate the lengths people go when they are panicked,” Zammit said.