The Bystander Effect: People’s Duties Remain the Same on Social Media

Photo courtesy of Nemo's

Normally, when you receive a notification that a friend is recording live, you expect to see them on vacation or at a new restaurant. But what if you opened it and you saw something heinous, violent or even criminal?

The emergence of Facebook Live and Twitter’s live-streaming platform Periscope have enabled anyone to stream violent incidents in real-time.

In January, prosecutors charged four Chicago teenagers with the torture and beating of a teen with mental health challenges that was broadcast on Facebook Live; the video went viral.

Prosecutors pointed to evidence from the livestream video to make the case that the boy, who has schizophrenia, was the victim of a hate crime.

Just two months later, on March 21, 40 people watched a live feed on Facebook showing the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl in Chicago without alerting police.

Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson held a press conference on April 2 to announce the arrest of a 14-year-old suspect.

When people watch these events unfold on various social media platforms, it raises the question: What’s the obligation of bystanders who see a crime unfolding? And why didn’t the people watching intervene?

There is no all-encompassing legal obligation in the United States that a bystander who witnesses an act of violence must intervene or call the police. But there are exceptions to that idea, and there’s also a reason why these viewers didn’t try harder to stop it.

The bystander effect, a phenomenon that psychologists describe as the tendency for people to be less likely to intervene in a dangerous situation as more people watch, is likely in effect here.

There is a digital disconnect — seeing these acts done live through a digital screen makes it feel less real and less impactful for people.

In these situations, tension arises between technology and our emotional relationship with it.

Although users can flag offensive videos on Facebook Live, according to Facebook’s policy page, this isn’t a foolproof system.

After a certain threshold of users flag the video, a report is sent to a team operating that reviews content around the clock. If they find it offensive, they flag it and take it down quickly.

Facebook says it has “a team on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week” that responds to user-flagged content, and that it monitors videos reaching “a certain level of popularity, even if they haven’t been reported.”

Still, the Chicago attack on the mentally disabled man went viral and was up for roughly half and hour before it was taken down.

Either way, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites with live streaming features need to pay extra attention to detail in monitoring the bystander effect. This issue also falls on the shoulders of everyday social media users.

If you see something, report it and call the police. That’s likely what you would do if you saw something happening in real life; your decision shouldn’t be any different when you watch a crime through a digital screen.

As users and consumers of digital media in the 21st century, it’s our job to ensure that we aren’t exploiting the nasty acts of others, and it’s equally important that the truth gets reported when something heinous like this happens.

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