The (Virtual) Bystander Effect: Witnessing Human Rights Abuse Online

Posted on July 20, 2012 by WITNESS

By Alexandra Zaretsky

From the YouTube video “Funny Cats in Water – EPIC” by user SchneiderYuri

When a video goes viral, millions of people become witnesses. Whether it is a clumsy kitten, an adorable child, or a gruesome protest, we as viewers are transported to that moment.  We see everything. We hear everything. But we change nothing.

In cases of extreme violence, video can be a powerful means of telling a story. But what is more important: telling that story, or changing it? In the past month two graphic videos of violence against women have gone viral, raising a host of questions about media ethics.

In Guwahati, India 20 men molested a 16-year-old-girl in full public view.  Live footage of the assault—which lasted over thirty minutes in its entirety—was captured by a reporter and later broadcast on a local news station.  And in a village outside Kabul, Afghanistan, a 22-year-old woman, charged with adultery, was shot by her husband at close range. 150 men watched the execution, cheering and shouting praise to God.

Both of the incidents were reported on Global Voices, the citizen media aggregate for content from around the world. The articles note the presence of bystanders who saw, and even filmed these events, yet did absolutely nothing to stop them. The blogger Vidyut questions the convenient presence of the cameraman in Guwahati:

What was the cameraman doing on the street, prepared to shoot with a broadcast quality camera and journalist partner when the incident happened? Just “happened” to be there?

More importantly still, Vidyut asks:

Why was the cameraman filming instead of helping?

What is the Role of the Witness to a Traumatic or Violent Event?

Millions of people across the world have now borne witness to the trauma and humiliation of these two women. Both of these videos took a personal tragedy and converted it into an international one. But do we as a society have a right to do this?

These videos have undoubtedly evoked powerful reactions from viewers worldwide. In Guwahati, police were able to identify several of the perpetrators, and so far, 11 of these men have been arrested. Since the victim was a member of an indigenous community, such violence is hardly out of the ordinary. However, as the author Rezwan points out, it was only public outcry in the wake of the video that “forced the police to act.”

In Kabul, dozens of women took to the streets in protest, led by Mumtaz Bibi and Sahar Gul. Bibi and Gul themselves are both young Afghani women who have been tortured by men in widely publicized instances of brutality.  As in India, government officials were forced to acknowledge the issue:

President Hamid Karzai has condemned the killing as “un-Islamic and inhuman” and ordered police to find the culprits and bring them to justice.

If we look only at the bottom line, then these videos can be viewed as positive. They mobilized public opinion against the type of violence documented and raised international awareness about the prevalence of violence against women.

But once we start looking at individual human beings in empirical terms, we fall into a dangerous trap. As these women become our poster-children for change, they become in equal measure the target of hostile forces. When we fail to protect their anonymity, we risk their liberty, their welfare, and their lives.

Even with YouTube’s new face blur technology, this issue remains pertinent.

If these women had remained anonymous, would it have lessened the cameramen’s guilt? Would it have changed the fact that these men chose to film and not to act?

As witnesses—whether physical or virtual—we bear a certain responsibility. As we raise awareness about an issue, we must be careful not to victimize the individual a second time.

From “Hear Us” a survivor of rape in Zimbabwe shares her story, but asked to have her identity concealed for her protection.

Video can be a valuable tool through which individual victims can tell their story in an informed, consensual manner. This should not be underestimated. But there is a difference between allowing someone to tell their own story and telling that story for them.  In June 2009, the death of Neda Agha-Soltan in Iran sparked similar controversy after a video of her final moments went viral.  Neda became a rallying cry, a symbol, a face for the revolution. But in the process, she ceased to be an individual.

Today, in India and Afghanistan, two young women risk sharing her fate.

Rape and murder are among the most extreme violations of human dignity. Must we share in the degradation of these women? In our current campaign against Gender Based Violence, WITNESS softens footage of outright violence by encouraging victims to speak about their experience.

Sometimes, this level of mediation serves a critical purpose. By distancing victim and viewers alike from the event, we avoid re-living the moment of trauma. Have we as a culture really lost all power of abstraction? Do we need to see the violence with our own eyes before we can sympathize with these women?

On Global Voices, commentators question whether India has become a “culture of bystanders”—but this epidemic may not be confined to India. Global society is well on its way to becoming a culture of virtual bystanders. Each time we watch these videos, we violate these victims again—and what exactly do we accomplish? With the best of intentions, we nonetheless become complicit in their shame.

We cannot forget that video is a means to an end, not an end in itself.  As viewers, as activists, and as human beings, we must be educated producers and consumers of visual media. We need to make sure that we are better than the physical bystanders that we condemn: that we are activists, and not passive witnesses.

Alexandra is an external relations intern at WITNESS and a rising senior at Northwestern University.

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What Others Are Saying

  1. Terrence Peter August 30, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Social media is making us into battery hens.

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