Today, thanks to the internet, anyone can become a journalist. Whether it is through writing a story or taking a video, publicizing one’s opinion is only a few clicks away. With that possibility, however, emerges a problem: the bystander effect.
By definition, the bystander effect “occurs when the presence of other people discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation,” according to an article in Psychology Today.
In the cases discussed in this article, a phone substitutes the presence of others and people choose to document a violent or graphic occurrence with their cameras instead of intervening to help the person who in danger. The question that arises is simply: Why?
In the “Black Mirror” episode “White Bear,” we follow a woman named Victoria, who wakes up in a society where everyone is controlled by a signal they receive through their phones. These people film others who, like Victoria, have somehow not been affected by the signal while they are chased by hunters.
What is interesting is how apathetic and unresponsive the onlookers (filmers) are to what is happening around them. When Victoria tries to talk to them, they ignore her until she throws an object at them and they run scared.
The way the onlookers deal with Victoria’s suffering and the chase happening around them is intriguing as it represents the bystander effect accurately. It becomes even more thought-provoking when the plot twists and we learn these bystanders are not mesmerized by a signal at all; they are visitors to the park where Victoria is being held, and they are taking part in a show that is her psychological torture.
In this case, the bystanders are actually receiving pleasure from watching and filming Victoria in agony. They find themselves in a situation where they hold power against a person who they believe deserves this kind of psychological torture as punishment for her actions.
In a way, this situation is not that different than bystanders in our world experience. Both the filmers in “Black Mirror” and in our world are holding power simply by filming the event.
In “White Bear,” the power filmers hold is the ability to humiliate Victoria. In the real world, the power of the act of filming a violent event is the notion that the person behind the camera is doing something to help alleviate the situation.
As the article Why Do People Film Others in Distress Instead of Helping Them? by Angela Lashbrook points out, this feeling becomes especially strong in cases where the bystander is not that physically capable, and as a result, does not believe that a physical intervention from their side could be as valuable as documenting from a distance, or that it could even be detrimental.
Another reason bystander behavior could occur is that there are more than one human witnessing an incident. In this case, it is very likely that all individuals present believe another person will do something, and as a result, none of them act. Furthermore, in a situation where many people are present, but none are helping, a person could conclude that there is no help needed. That can seem cruel in cases where the need is obvious, but nevertheless could happen.
As an example, according to the article Oceanside Stabbing: After a Brawl, Teenagers Gawked as a Boy Lay Dying – after a fight, teenagers, instead of helping a boy that was fatally wounded, chose to film the incident. In this case, the boy was in obvious need of help and medical attention, however, no one intervened.
While filming such an event could potentially be very helpful by either shedding light on later investigations or stopping the occurrence entirely, it is not equal to taking immediate action. “This can’t go on. Your friends are dying while you stand there and video it? That’s egregious.” said the detective of the above case characteristically.
And indeed, filming when help could have saved lives can be punishable. In the Ahmaud Arbery case, the person who filmed the black jogger’s life being taken by two white men has been arrested on charges of felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. Whether or not he should be charged has sparked a controversy. Many claim that by not intervening he becomes an accomplice, while others say that without his video there would be no case as it constitutes vital evidence of what actually occurred.
Controversies such as this one show that the future of how we handle similar cases is uncertain. It’s not a simple matter if filming instead of helping is considered unethical by many. However, it has substantial advantages. I believe such occurrences should be examined on an individual basis because there are many reasons a person could choose not to intervene and film instead.