INVESTIGATION: Is our addiction to social media making roads in Oman more dangerous?

20 Sep 2017
POSTED BY Y Magazine

Those who take a selfie staring death in the face and post it on social media to rack up likes and followers are no heroes. They are zeroes. Alvin Thomas zooms in on the social media stunts in Oman.

How far would you go to become a star on social media? It is a question that invokes several different answers: while some believe in gaining followers by uploading captivating content and using creative hashtags, others opt for recording every moment of their lives by clicking selfies or creating short videos. Many also try to etch their faces on famous personalities (i.e. movie stars, singers, politicians, etc.) or pose with expensive supercars.

But will these tricks help you earn those big numbers? Well, not necessarily. And as was demonstrated last week, certain individuals are now “willing to put their lives at risk for the sake of a few followers”.

It all started when a 21-year-old Omani model – who deems herself a “social media star” – uploaded to social media platform Snapchat a video of her racing a Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG sports sedan at 203kph on the streets of Oman and onwards to the United Arab Emirates.

Needless to say, the video went viral, garnering several thousands of views.

The model currently has 214,000 followers on Instagram alone, and several thousands more on Snapchat.

In hindsight, all of this meant that it was easy for the Royal Oman Police (ROP) to track down the traffic offender. Subsequently, she was slapped with a fine of RO1,000 for the 76 offences that she had committed over the past year (!) and her car impounded.

The news was furthermore covered by several mainstream media companies in the Sultanate. Interviews of the model were also published wherein she talked about the dangers of speeding and breaking traffic laws.

So, was she noble in coming forward and accepting her mistake?

“Yes and no,” says one ROP official who wishes to remain anonymous.

“Yes, because she has sowed a good thought in the minds of her followers; and no, because I think that, despite everything, she did it to gain a few followers.

“It was a cheap stunt. At the end of the day, any publicity is good publicity,” he adds.

In reality, however, such “cheap stunts” are on the rise not just in Oman but around the globe.

For example, in June, a US-based social media star lost his life in a bid to gain further recognition online. The star, Pedro Ruiz, was shot dead by his girlfriend following a daring act that they hoped would increase the couple’s followership on their public YouTube channel –La MonaLisa. Teenage mother Monalisa Perez was asked to fire a bullet at her boyfriend from 30cm, using a .50-calibre Desert Eagle handgun as he held a hardback encyclopedia to his chest; a measure the couple thought would save his life from the bullet.

In Dubai, Russian model Viktoria Odintcova gained fame after she posted a video on her Instagram account (on February 3) of her standing with a companion on the rooftop ledge of the Cayan Tower in the Dubai Marina. The model was seen leaning back over the edge of the tower while holding onto her friend’s hand. He recorded the footage with a portable camera clenched between his teeth. She then lowered herself down over the side of the building with nothing but a 300-metre drop and the busy waterways of the marina below her. With no safety harness, and still using just one hand, the model twisted in the wind and flicked her hair over her shoulder as she completed the death-defying stunt. The YouTube video has since received over six million views and 2,245 comments (as of September 18).

“Thankfully, stunt videos have never exceeded to that level in Oman yet,” says the ROP official, adding that he prays such tragic cases will never occur in the Sultanate.

“Oman is a peaceful country. Yes, we are keeping with the trends of the age, but why should we do acts that pose a risk to one’s life, or with the possibility of harming more people?

“Still we have come to a point where we have to keep constant track of trending videos online.

The Sultanate’s biggest threat on social media is of drivers speeding or “showing off” their skills on public roads.

“Such acts pose a huge risk not only to the offender but also to those in the vicinity,” he tells Y.

Over the last few months, several arrests have been made and cars impounded following the release of videos on social media. For instance, on July 9, a citizen was arrested for drifting his Porsche 911 GT3 supercar in the parking area of a mall in Khasab.

In other news, a young driver was arrested (June 12) for drifting his Chevrolet Corvette sports car at the traffic signal in the Muscat Governorate. The video was known to have received over 8,000 views on Instagram and tens of thousands of views on Facebook.

More recently, a Lexus SUV was impounded and the owner arrested for drifting on a grass patch in Salalah after the video shot by bystanders went viral.

Ironically, the 36-second video of the impounded vehicle received over 43,000 views on Facebook, and was touted by many viewers as “satirical”.

Lewis, a manager at a construction firm, says the video was “hilarious” and maintains that the ROP has a “sense of humour” while upholding the law.

“I laugh hard every time I see a car impounded and parked outside the ROP station. It’s a reminder to those going hard and fast on the roads. I might laugh now, but it is a serious issue; kids nowadays just want to show off and get likes for their videos,” the manager says.

“My son, for instance, believes that the more likes he gets for his photos online, the more famous he is with his peers. There’s a definite competition among youngsters for getting to the top, and to do that, they will go to the farthest of lengths.

“It’s about time the ROP implemented strict rules such as this. I don’t know of a better deterrent to such acts than arrest and hefty fines,” he explains.

With regards to the recent incidents, we contacted an official from the ROP’s road and traffic division. He says: “A driver must use both hands when driving a car. Keeping a hand busy is illegal whether it is for texting, taking pictures or making a phone call.

“People who share videos of themselves on social media are sharing an evidence of a traffic violation and they can be fined for that.

“The lady who filmed herself speeding over 200kph was fined because she shared the video and displayed the dashboard which had the speed displayed on it,” he adds.

Oman and Al-Hilal star goalkeeper Ali al Habsi advises youngsters and social media personalities to be aware of the repercussions their videos and photos can have on the public.

“You must be careful about what you post online,” Al Habsi says. “There are a lot of people who follow you, especially if you are a media personality. So, care must be taken in what you do and what you want your followers to see.

“By driving recklessly on the road, you are showing people that it is normal to drive like that. And who knows? They may even get injured while doing so.

“Don’t do things for the fame; do it because you want to make the right impact in society. And it is such people who stay relevant for long,” the goalkeeper adds.

Meanwhile, speaking to Y, Ali al Barwani, the chief executive officer of the Oman’s Road Safety Association, condemned such “irresponsible” acts.

“As an influencer you must use your power to create a positive change,” says Al Barwani.

“Reckless driving and showing off behind the wheel of a car is a common trait among youngsters from the ages of 18 to 25. This is also why a large percentage of accidents occurs among people in this age group.

“But think twice or even thrice before you commit such an act; because, then you will most likely back out from it.

“Social media is a commonplace for youngsters trying to impress their friends and peers, but there’s a flipside to committing such acts: losing your life and possibly also causing death and injury to others.

“The ROP law forbids using a mobile phone while driving. But people still fidget with it and take videos of things that happen around them,” he explains.

“Parents purchase their kids expensive and powerful cars. I cannot stop that. Everyone has the right to have fun, but parents must step in to teach their kids how to be a responsible driver,” he adds.

“Also, I feel a lot more education must be provided to drivers before they are given the keys to a car. These youngsters – expatriates and Omanis alike – think they are invincible after they get their licence,” he tells us.

In an interview with local daily, Times of Oman, Ali al Barwani talked about the social media star who sped past 200kph. He was quoted as saying: “She might think she has become very popular because of such stunts on the road, but this is an extremely dangerous act and she is actually very lucky that a very serious accident did not occur.”

However, not everyone must be condemned for a mistake, Ali tells Y. “The girl came to the public and apologised. And that is a huge step. That means she understood her mistake and regrets it; be it for publicity or not. Everyone is capable of change, and if she is ready to do that, we should not judge her.”

Ali al Barwani’s frustration is further cemented by the accident statistics released by the ROP and the Directorate General of Traffic this year.

A total of 4,721 accidents occurred last year, resulting in 692 deaths and 3,261 injuries. Collisions accounted for 2,076 of those accidents. Speeding was the number one cause of death, resulting in 378 deaths and 2,052 injuries from 2,499 accidents.

In addition, drivers between the ages of 16 and 25 accounted for 197 deaths, or 28 per cent of all casualties, and 1,069, or 33 per cent, of all injuries.

Female deaths accounted for a total of 14 per cent of all casualties, with 97 women losing their lives due to reckless driving last year, while 23 per cent of the injured, or about 741, were also women.

There was a 45.7 per cent increase in the deaths of Omani females between January and the end of July this year, compared to that of the first seven months of last year.

According to the National Centre for Statistics and Information, from the beginning of the year till the end of July 2017, deaths of 51 Omani females were registered, a steep increase from 35 recorded during the same period last year.

After scouring social media platforms and handles, we came across a young Omani entrepreneur who posted videos of him driving his European sports sedans at pace on the highways of Oman.

He agreed to speak to Y on condition of anonymity. He opens up: “I have a select group of followers who love seeing me drive fast. And I think of it as my duty to serve them with good content. I know it is illegal to drive fast, but I only do it on empty stretches
of roads.

“By purchasing expensive cars, I am trying to show the people in the world that such luxuries can be attained. I like motivating people and that’s why I put up such videos.

“It’s not overshare. I have been on Instagram for three years now, and I like people to see photos of the cars I own. It is also a matter of pride for me.”

Since our interview, several videos have been deleted from the user’s Instagram page.

But have you ever wondered how much sharing is overshare and why such acts are often committed?

Today, psychologists are worried that social media has set the trend for narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) – a personality disorder in which there is a long-term pattern of abnormal behaviour characterised by exaggerated feelings of self-importance and excessive need for admiration – among common people.

A recent study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking found that people who base their self-worth on their appearance tend to share more photos of themselves online to ultimately compete for attention.

According to the study, sharing too many pictures of oneself is often associated with narcissism but, on the contrary, it can also be linked to low self-esteem.

This can be applied to people who post pictures of their luxurious possessions on social media: their self-esteem can be tied up with the things they own.

This phenomenon, known as “psychological ownership”, can produce positive and uplifting effects, and people sharing pictures and videos of what they own or can do boosts their confidence.

“Remember this,” says Fahad al Balushi, an automotive salesman. “The choices you make and the acts you commit not only alter your life but also that of others. So, if you’re making a call to do something risky, make sure you do it at your own risk; please don’t hurt us to get your ego tickled.”

Stupefying Selfies

Deaths caused during the act of taking a selfie.

  • Date: 26 August 2017

Location: India

A 17-year-old boy attempted to take a selfie on top of a train carriage in Tambaram railway station, India. He touched a live wire, suffered severe burns from electrocution and died four days later.

  • Date: 26 July 2017

Location: India

An 18-year-old was swept into the sea and drowned while he was taking a selfie at a beach in Mumbai, India during high tide.

  • Date: 1 July 2017

Location: Nigeria

Four undergraduate students of the Federal University of Technology, Akure, Nigeria were taking selfies in a canoe while boating on a campus pond. The canoe capsized. Two students who could swim barely made it to safety while two others drowned.

  • Date: 30 April 2017

Location: Germany

A Scottish man was knocked down and killed after trying to take a selfie on a German motorway. He was with two friends when he was hit by a car on the A24 Autobahn in Gudow, near Hamburg.

  • Date: 8 October 2016

Location: Oman

Two Sri Lankan girls were visiting Ain Garziz in Oman with their families. While at a picnic, they were taking selfies near a deep spring. One girl slipped into the spring and grabbed the hand of the other. She was unable to pull her companion out and was dragged down into the water where both of the girls drowned.

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