The new debate: Social media in the wake of tragedy

Published: Aug. 9, 2018 at 4:13 PM EDT
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By: Abby Walton | WCTV Eyewitness News

August 9, 2018

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) -- Two weeks ago, I-10 westbound was


Many people didn’t know why, until photos starting showing up on Facebook and Twitter. They showed mangled cars and people in shock.

All of it, the result of a 45 car pile-up. Police said it could've been much worse.

Several social media posts also showed the one person that was severely injured in that crash.

Those posts started a conversation.

Many of you reached out to WCTV asking about the rules regarding crash photos on social media. So, we went looking for answers.

Rennai Kelly said she couldn’t believe her eyes after surviving that 45-car pile-up.

"I just pulled out my phone and I took a picture because I was like ‘No one's going to believe this,'” Kelly said.

When it comes to social media, Rennai mostly uses it for business.

"I'm not a big poster," Kelly said.

But, like many that day, she wanted to document her experience. So, she uploaded photos to social media, several of which showed the crash victim.

"I saw everyone standing over him with umbrellas and people crying. We're all looking in shock and everyone was really concerned, generally concerned for him," Kelly said.

Rennai never meant to hurt anyone with her post.

Instead, to her, those photos represent the best of humanity during a difficult time.

But others, like Natalie Colon, don't agree.

"I think it's such a huge violation to his privacy,” Colon said.

Natalie and her daughter were also involved in that crash.

"I think that they thought they were doing something good which is normal in today's society," Colon said.

However, she believes it took away that man's right to privacy.

But according to the law, did it?

"The fact that the accident occurred in public and people are able to take pictures or videos at the accident scene, that's likely not something where someone has a right to privacy," Ethan Wall, a social media lawyer, said.

He says technology is changing so fast, the legal system can't keep up.

"Courts are trying to find ways to adopt these existing principles of freedom of speech and the right to privacy to the new social media realm and are finding it incredibly difficult,” Wall said.

That's because there are limits to both.

For example, while a photo like Rennai's is protected under the First Amendment, taking a photo of the victim inside an ambulance is not.

"Because at that time, we believe that people do have a right to privacy," Wall said.

Right now, there aren't any national social media laws. Instead states are creating their own.

In Florida, there are laws regulating revenge pornography and taking photos or video of law enforcement killed in the line of duty.

There are currently no social media laws in Georgia.

"Most of the laws we have, that infringe upon our right to our freedom of speech, are ones we value the right to privacy more," Wall said.

Or, it's considered dangerous.

If caught taking crash pictures or video while driving, Florida Highway Patrol could write a ticket for distracted driving.

“Let law enforcement take the photos we need for crime scenes and things like that and not get involved. Because you could subject your personal cell phone, if discovered later, to release those photos to law enforcement," FHP Major Chris Blackmon said.

But there is something else that a lot of us don’t think about.

Thankfully, no one was killed in the I-10 crash. But, if a crash is deadly, law enforcement then have the solemn task of telling the family.

But now, with social media, life-changing news is often released before families are notified.

In the case of I-10, the victim's family did reach out to Rennai.

They didn't mind the photos because, they say, it showed everyone who helped their loved one.

"If his mom, if his sister, if his aunt said ‘Please take it down’, not a thought process behind it. There's nothing to debate at that point," Kelly said.

But there is still a debate.

Rennai still gets comments both for and against her photos.

"It does shed light, when you see others post things, you don't know what their frame of mind is and you don't know what their intent was behind it," Kelly said.

However, those arguments surround our society's moral and ethical compass, not our laws.

It's now up to the courts to figure out a way for technology, our freedoms and the rights of others to co-mingle.

It’s a job that's only just beginning.

When it comes to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, they, like news stations, don't have specific laws governing what can and can't be posted.

However, they make their own rules about what will and won't go on their site.

But as we've seen, especially with Facebook recently, these sites are even having to change regarding what people do and don't want to see posted in their feeds.