Around 02h30 one morning a woman was returning from work. As she reached her building, a man came out of nowhere with a knife. She ran. He stabbed. She screamed. A neighbour yelled. The attacker fled. Silence followed. The woman crawled to the back of the building. Her attacker returned. He stabbed her again. He raped her. He stole her money.
Does it sound tragically familiar?
It might surprise you that the woman was Kitty Genovese, the year was 1964 and the place was New York City. It was one of the most famous murder cases at the time. What propelled it into the spotlight was not the crime or the investigation, but the fact that the press said there were witnesses, but no-one came to her defence. Even though this turned out to be false, it had become part of the story and was thus repeated.
In 1968, social psychologists John M. Darley and Bibb Latané published their theory on the bystander effect. They said that if there are other people around, individuals are less likely to help because they think else would or should.
Fast forward from 1968 to 2020
I want us to think about this in terms of disinformation and scams on social media and the role we play in keeping it going. It is interesting to note that we will often pass on virtual versions of the age-old ‘chain letters’ without thinking much about it, yet keep quiet when we suspect something in these ‘chain letters’ could be untrue. Sometimes we even KNOW it is a scam but don’t say anything. Do you ever pass things on without reading it through to the end?
Fake news, then and now
How often do we pass information on because it ‘seems plausible’ as it confirms something we already fear? How often do we check the source and the facts before we click share?
I belong to a group of guys who matriculated with me. A WhatsApp was shared in the group that featured a guy saying that we are without warning going to be sent into another level 3 lockdown and that ‘guys, whatever you do, stock up on cigarettes and alcohol TODAY!!!’
I pointed out that the voice has been identified as someone who had posted fake news before and that there was no evidence at all that we were facing these restrictions. Some members of the group still panicked and stocked up ‘just in case!’
There are a few things that should let the red lights come on for you:
- It plays up the fear factor – look at the language used. Does it tug at your heartstrings with emotional images and descriptive words? Does it make out one party as the desperate, powerless victim? The victim that may sound very much like YOU or someone you love? Does it use your home language or state things in such a way that it includes you as part of the ‘in’ group? This is often a subtle way to play on racist or class-driven fears of a particular group.
- It plays on your emotions to get you to share a message – does it ask you to ‘stand by the victims’ or share this if you ‘care at all about your loved ones’? Or use religion as a hook: ‘pray this prayer with me’? Does it state ‘I bet no one is going to like or share this?’
- Does it refer to secret knowledge – does it claim that someone is trying to ‘hide the truth’ from you? Indirectly they may well be saying that even if you were trying to check the facts, you will not be able to get to the truth, so why bother?
- Does it tell you how easy it would be to share the information – just hold your finger down to copy and send to everyone on your contacts list? The authors of these things are aware that humanity is lazy. We want to seem concerned about the welfare of others, but we do not want to work too hard for it!
Can we apply the Bystander Effect to how we interact on Social Media?
The authors of the theory proposed that five things influence whether ‘someone in the crowd’ would think something is wrong and do something about it.
1. Someone must notice something is wrong
- Information overload – We may get annoyed with our friends and family for sending us drivel, but just ignore or delete it. We just do not have the time or energy to explain the dangers of entertaining this. Social Media does not keep office hours so we may receive these messages at an inconvenient time. We may tell ourselves we will respond in an hour but by then we have been inundated with advertisements, neighbourhood WhatsApp group posts, cute kittens and messages from the boss even though it is after hours.
- Desensitisation – We know there are countless scams out there. We may even know people who have fallen prey to these. We know pyramid schemes can wipe out the life savings of the elderly in one transaction, yet we choose not to say something (over and over and over and…) about these traps to the elderly in our lives.
We may feel helpless. What can we ‘really’ do? Through repeated exposure, we just become used to it. Can you remember the first time you heard that someone you know fell prey to a scam? If you hear about a comparable situation now, do you still have the same strong response? Most likely not. You may even feel anger towards the victim now; ‘it’s their own fault’ and ‘they must learn the hard way’.
2. Interpreting the situation
- Recognising how a public post could influence those you know personally – when we receive messages, we deal with them in terms of how they apply to us personally. It is easy to forget that our elderly relatives may also have received the same and may not have the ability to make good judgement calls on these. You may forget that just because your kids or nieces and nephews are more tech-savvy than you, that they are as ‘scam-savvy’ as you!
- No clear and imminent danger in the virtual realm – The Internet is ‘open’ 24 hours a day, every day. Information is produced in bite sizes, lacking context, or explanation. There often seems to be confusion as to timelines – is this a new threat just discovered? Did someone forward an old post? Is this a comment or confirmation or a request for comment or confirmation?
3. Figuring out who is responsible
- The Wild, Wild Web – just exactly who ensure law and order on the web? You can report as spam and block phone numbers and email addresses. Facebook has assorted options for blocking people and reporting posts. If you reported a post Facebook will let you know if it infringed ‘community norms and standards.’ Do you know what these are? Do you know where to look for these? Do you even want to know?
- But I am technologically challenged! – a friend of mine says they were born BC – Before Computers. This is often an excuse used not to act. Most of ‘us’ have, however, been using cell phones and computers for more than a decade or two. Most of us use search engines every day, if not more. Can we really still use this excuse to absolve us of responsibility?
4. Deciding on the kind of help needed
- I am a tired, tiny fish in a big pond – that you may be. Could you tell one other tired, tiny fish to watch out? Even just a single phrase like: ‘If I were you, I would Google this, it may be a scam’ could save someone a lot of money and embarrassment.
- I receive a thousand messages across a thousand platforms all day, every day – I have typed out a couple of standard answers about scams, chain letters and prescribed prayer requests and exactly why I find these problematic. As these missives are saved on my computer and my phone, it is super easy to share – just like the chain messages!
- Not much bang for your buck – As a species we like rewards and social media has made many of us addicted to it. No one will send you chocolates for writing a review on Hellopeter or reporting someone to Facebook. You will never get the time back that you spent typing out your argument with one finger on your phone. But then, was Instafame your goal?
- Anonymous keyboard bullies and social pressure – Recently I pointed out on our neighbourhood WhatsApp group that the message ‘cough repeatedly if you think you are having a heart attack’ has been proven to be false numerous times over.
The person who posted it became angry. I was called interesting names and accused of being heartless, because though the person ‘knew’ some doctors disagreed, at least forwarding this message showed that he ‘cared about us by putting forward something to try’ and I had offered no alternatives! I was fuming! Even though I was working I ‘took the time’ to be helpful! Now I was ‘forced to defend myself!’ Why can I not just learn to keep my typing fingers to myself!
My neighbour was also trying to be helpful. He wanted us to look after one another…Today he greeted me stiffly in the parking lot whilst avoiding eye contact.
Am I my brother’s keeper?
This is the ultimate question: To what degree am I responsible for the safety and welfare of my nearest and dearest? That is a question I cannot answer for you, but this is what I want to say: do not just be a bystander. Live deliberately. Know why you do things. Put a speed limit on the mindless share button. Check your facts. Speak out when you think something is wrong and have your answer ready.
Social media sharing is not a replacement for real concern. The quantity of messages you forward to your loved ones does not define the quality of your relationship. Make sure you connect often. Listen deeply to what the ones you love have gained and lost and how they deal with all the rapid changes in the world. Take the time to say the same things over and over and over again if it will keep them safe. You may also need it one day.