The bystander effect is the psychological term coined after Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered outside her New York apartment building in 1964. As the story unfolded, neighbors ignored her screams during three attacks over a 30-minute period.
The horror of the crime was magnified by this apparent lack of interest, leading to studies that produced the bystander effect theory. Researchers discovered that the more people who witness something, the less likely any are to respond. When several witnesses are present, people tend to assume that someone else will jump in — or make the call — or they think that, since no one else is taking action, there really isn’t a problem.
In the recent rape case, where two Ohio high school football players were convicted of assaulting a 16-year-old girl from West Virginia while she was too drunk to give consent (one of her attackers described her in a text message as “like a dead body”), not only were there witnesses but dozens of other teens were also privy to what happened through postings to social media. In no time, a 16-year-old’s humiliation went viral.
Much has been said about how social media helped solve this crime. Through texts, videos, photographs and posts on Twitter and Facebook, police were able to piece together a timeline and document what happened. This history is posited as one of the marvels of social media.
What hasn’t been addressed is the factor of social media in the events themselves. If the bystander effect prevented people in 1964 from coming to the aid of Kitty Genovese, what might we expect from this and future generations, technologically equipped with devices that, by definition, place one in the role of dispassionate observer?
I too found the self-congratulatory tweets I read yesterday, crowing about the power of social media to bring these rapists to justice, to be self-serving and completely clueless. It was, in fact, the very “power” of social media that kept this crime from being stopped while it was occurring.
Busting out your cellphone cameras to “record the moment” doesn’t absolve you of responsibility to stop a crime (in this case, a sexual assault) from happening.
With a cellphone in every pocket, it has become second nature for most people to snap a picture or tap the video button at the slightest provocation — a baby’s giggle, a fallen tree or, just possibly, a drunk girl stripped naked by boys who don’t think twice. Over time, might the marginalizing effect of bystander detachment impede any impulse to empathize ?
Endowed with miraculous gadgetry and fingertip technology that allow reflex to triumph over reason, millions of young people today have the power to parlay information without the commensurate responsibility that comes with age, experience and, inevitably, pain.
The ease of cellphone photography and videography promotes a certain removal from circumstances, driving all into the bystander mode that leads to a massive shirking of responsibility and perhaps even a lack of cognitive awareness of one’s own part in the moment.
That it took weeks (months, really) for this crime to come to the attention of authorities, while dozens of people (perhaps more) had videos and pictures of the night in question, represents an astonishing failure on behalf of technology and the cyber-utopian’s vision of a social-media connected world.
Meanwhile, head over to Sociological Images if you want to read more on the “wonder” of social media. While everyone is busy beating up (rightly) CNN and other television coverage for their brain-dead stories on the verdicts, SI has captured the very best of twitter and facebook’s reaction.
Bravo, social media.