The recent rape conviction of two teenagers, one of whom also distributed a photo and sent cruel text messages about their victim, has captured the “bystander effect” in graphic and nauseating detail.
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.
This rendition of events was later disputed. Apparently, the configuration of apartments was such that no one could see the entire series of events. Despite different accounts, at least some of the people in her building were aware that a woman was being attacked and none came to her rescue.
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 privy to what happened through postings to social media. In no time, a 16-year-old’s humiliation went viral.
Once again, the horror of what happened to a victim has been magnified by the apparent lack of empathy among her peers. Not only has the girl been physically violated, but the psychological effects of her public exposure are unimaginable and likely will be enduring.
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?
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 empathy?
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, thrusting 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.
One of the most famous photographs of all time, by AP photographer Eddie Adams, showed Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting Viet Cong operative Nguyen Van Lem in the head. Adams grieved for what he called his own killing of Loan, who was known throughout the world for that photo and little else.
Adams caught an essential moment with that Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, but not, according to him, a whole truth. For the rest of his life, Adams regretted his role in Loan’s subsequent demonization.
Though both Adams and Loan are dead, the image endures forever. The same can be said of the poor West Virginia girl whose image was captured and distributed by one of her abusers. The difference is that Adams understood the power of the photograph, which he once called “the most powerful weapon in the world.” Never mind the power of an instant publishing mechanism in every urchin’s hands.
In the 21st century, it isn’t possible to keep such weapons out of the hands of children. At the very least, the young should be taught to treat the artillery of social media with the same fear and loathing we demand for all deadly weapons. Otherwise, we risk becoming bystanders to our own dystopia.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post.