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.

Photo: Getty
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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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