The TSA is on Instagram - and the results are alarming

Why are hundreds of firearms being discovered each month in carry-on bags – and why are the majority of these weapons loaded?

Intimate snapshots of human life filtered to fit the mood or a pseudo-artistic tool nurturing the “selfie” and other types of narcissistic behaviour? However you feel about Instagram, it is a window into the fishbowl of modern culture.

With 130 million users, and 16 billion photo shares, Instagram is the place to “share” – or show off. In fact, the photo sharing phenomenon became so popular and powerful that Facebook desperately bought it for $1bn. And now it’s introduced advertising-friendly, 15-second videos to compete with Vine – or, should it be “Vain”? – to help it cover the cost.

But could it be that the power of sharing images through Instagram could actually communicate something truly valuable? Something that is actually worth more to the follower than the user?

The TSA (the US’s Transportation Security Administration), with its switched-on social media strategy, is about to turn the traditional Instagram experience on its head.

Recently, the TSA has been making more headlines than usual with its foray into Instagram social sharing. The controversial security agency has been linked with Instagram before, when rapper Freddie Gibbs posted an image of a bag of weed which the TSA allegedly found in his checked luggage, with the message: “C’mon son” allegedly written on accompanying official documentation by a TSA officer.

This story broke when it was Instagrammed by Gibbs, and whether it was the 402 likes or the comments that it prompted, or both, the TSA – to even more controversy – has finally opened an Instagram account itself.

With a relatively popular blog, which was started in 2008 and a Twitter account that has amassed 32,000 followers, the agency has been using social media to spread its safety message for some time.

A regular blog feature has been the Week in Review where images of firearms and prohibited items are displayed, evidencing shocking discoveries made at airports each week. On 5 July, for example, 30 firearms were discovered – from stun guns to credit card knives – and 27 of these were loaded.

For the average European citizen, the prospect of guns on planes is alarming, but most of the states in the US uphold the rights of individuals to keep and bear arms. Although different states have different rules, generally it is not illegal to travel with a firearm, but passengers must put unloaded firearms in a locked container or checked baggage, which is very clearly stated by the TSA.

So why, then, are hundreds of firearms being discovered each month in carry-on bags – and why are the majority of these weapons loaded?

The account already has 11 images posted – each with hundreds of shares – and more than 40,000 followers, a number that has outdone its Twitter following in a matter of weeks. And its photo-sharing strategy is hitting headlines, prompting user communication and, by using different filters, creating a visually striking record – which users want to share – of illegally-stowed weapons.

One of the most shocking images is a cool-looking Marlboro red packet, on an arty sepia background, that is actually a stun gun. One user, pafford, commented: “Close call. Imagine if he stunned someone on a plane. Imagine the devastation.” Another disturbing photo shows a credit card knife, discovered at Miami Airport.

By tapping into Instagram’s visual voice, the images of these firearms are not only more provocative, grainy and real, but they are being exposed to a whole new audience who wouldn’t necessarily be subscribing to the blog or following on Twitter.

But where will the daring TSA go next on social? Will it naturally progress to Instagram's 15-second films or to Vine? Right now there doesn't seem to be any medium the agency wouldn't take a shot at.

The Transport Security Administration's account on Twitter - a volatile place to be.

Frances Cook is a freelance energy, transport and lifestyle reporter. She has worked for NRI Digital.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.