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
Show Hide image

On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University