Please stop sharing that viral WhatsApp video of the man masturbating

Louis Staples
Tuesday 31 March 2020 12:30
Celebrities
(iStock/WhatsApp/indy100)

During coronavirus self-isolation, I’ve found myself occupying my time with a deluge of DMs, WhatsApp messages, Houseparty requests and, if that wasn’t enough, “Zoom beers”.

A side effect of people who aren’t key workers (or suddenly overwhelmed with childcare responsibilities) being even more “online” than normal is that many of us are now getting sent the same memes, videos and viral tweets by at least three friends most days. This happened last week when, completely out of the blue, I was sent a video of a man, errr *pleasuring himself* on his sofa.

Here’s what happened

The video in question went massively viral on certain factions of WhatsApp at the end of last week. If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry, that just means your friends have minds that aren’t in the gutter (unlike mine) or you aren’t glued to your phone (unlike me).

It was taken by an unidentified woman in an unidentified place in the UK, and showed an unidentified man at 7.58pm last Thursday evening. The woman was out on her balcony, preparing to join people across the UK in clapping for the NHS, when she took the video. She says:

“So it’s two minutes to eight and we’re all about to cheer for the NHS and look who’s off again. Brilliant. F*cking hell.”

As she speaks, her camera pans over to a man in the distance, in what looks like a living room with huge glass windows, sitting on his sofa masturbating.

Why it’s troubling

Anyone can see the obvious humour in this man being spied on having a... personal moment. I’ll admit I watched the video several times and cackled when I first saw it. But in the moments that followed, as I was sent the video once more, I thought about what it would feel like to be filmed by someone, from a distance, and have that video sent to other people.

There’s a lot we don’t know about the circumstances of the video. We can presume these people don’t know each other and were both in their respective homes, though we don’t know that for sure. It’s inferred from the video that this man doing his business in full view of his neighbours is a regular occurrence. We’ve got no way of knowing whether that’s true, but if it is then it’s only reasonable to consider the possibility that this man might be doing it deliberately (several of my female friends have said that this has happened to them before with male neighbours, which is pretty grim). But if this was a frequent and unwanted occurrence, then there are mechanisms in place to deal with it (like calling the police and reporting it).

We don’t know if the person who filmed this video shared it with lots of people. It’s likely that they had no idea it would go viral and it simply got out of hand. But based on the very limited information that we know, it’s certainly debatable whether the person(s) who filmed it and shared it are on higher moral ground than than the man who had a w**k in an admittedly very stupid place.

It may seem ridiculous to pick this random man masturbating as the hill I’m going to die on. After all, he has glass windows and he’s not easily identifiable. Plus, there’s a global pandemic on so: a) we need laughter; and b) surely there’s bigger fish to fry.

But this man going viral on WhatsApp is a symptom of a wider problem with how the Facebook-owned messaging app is being used during the coronavirus pandemic.

The broader issues at play

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen WhatsApp emerge as a big player in the world’s “misinformation” problem. Anything from a link to a meme, an image or a video can be sent across the world, without any accountability, to groups that contain hundreds of members. Anyone from these groups can instantly forward this content to other groups with hundreds of members, and so the process repeats. It’s not always clear whether these messages, including this video of the man masturbating, were intended to go viral or did so organically. Sometimes viral WhatsApp messages are funny and an obvious joke, like the voice note that suggested that the Ministry of Defence was planning to make a giant lasagne in Wembley Stadium.

But several of my friends have reported their boomer/Gen-X parents, who are new to WhatsApp, are falling victim to what appears to be deliberate misinformation spreading, such as the Army being drafted in to “build a fence around London so no one can leave” and “spray the streets with disinfectant with water cannons”. This might sound funny, but it’s this sort of thing which ends with vulnerable people doing stupid and potentially dangerous things because they’ve believed misinformation.

Remember the armed man who was arrested in 2016 because he’d been convinced by an online conspiracy theory he saw on Facebook that Hillary Clinton was running a paedophile ring from a pizza parlour? Comparing these things might seem like a stretch, but the moment we’re all living through, where emotions are high and disinformation is everywhere, could easily become the backdrop for WhatsApp’s own pizzagate-style scandal if we aren’t careful.

There’s definitely something disturbing about messages going massively viral on a platform like WhatsApp, which isn’t public or traceable. Even if it’s something as trivial as a man masturbating, there’s virtually no way of finding the original source. Despite their (many, many) flaws, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, people are able to see if they’ve gone viral and report the content if they don’t like it. But on WhatsApp, it’s possible that a person could go viral without even knowing it, and have absolutely zero ability to have the content removed.

WhatsApp is increasingly looking like today’s version of Bluetooth photo transferring.

People still use Bluetooth to share files, but when I was a teen in the pre-smartphone era when we all had Motorola Razrs, it was the method most people used. In those days it was common for (mostly female) students to have nude photographs leaked and beamed via Bluetooth to nearly everyone in their school. These were then sent (again, via Bluetooth) to people in neighbouring schools, who also sent the photos to other people. Once it was out there, it was out there, with this process continuing until the subjects of the photos were anonymous to most of the people who were consuming their humiliation without too much thought.

WhatsApp is obviously a great tool in a lot of ways. After all, why else would so many people (including me) use it on a daily basis? But people (again, including me) seem happy to share things on group chats with their friends that they’d never dream of posting on Facebook, Instagram and (probably not) Twitter.

This time it might just be a video of a man masturbating, which was likely taken without malice, but what if next time it is malicious? Or the person is identifiable and vulnerable?

There’s always going to be a space where we share things with our friends in an unfiltered way. In self-isolation, these communication methods have been a lifeline. But stuff going viral-by-stealth on WhatsApp is a symptom of our culture that’ll outlast Covid-19. And it’s a pattern I just don’t see ending well.

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