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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?

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

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.