Understanding Ethics in Social Media Use: The Bystander Effect

We are living in an era where our actions are often dominated by what we see or hear in the media. With the rise of social media – our values can often be put to the test during the event of a crisis. The concern of ethics present in social media use has been a widely equivocal subject – this essay will thus explore a specific area of the degree to which social media inhibits our decision in acting to offer aid in times of crisis. This brings into question whether we act autonomously upon our values, or whether we are behavioural beings who follow the majority in society. Considering the proliferation and the ‘ease-of-use’ of social media presently, this essay posits that the function of social media as a tool for social cohesion, therapeutic initiatives and disaster aid during times of crisis (Alexander, 2013) is an incubator for a burgeoning bystander effect – where passiveness is actively exercised.

The vast number online users and the user-friendly interface of social media has made easier the option of ‘diffusion of responsibility’ to surface, a phenomenon where a person is less likely to act when others are present (Hudson & Bruckman, 2004). The ‘diffusion of responsibility’ becomes a greater problem than it already is due to the vast number of social media users based on the ‘Stages of Decisions’ decision tree (Latané & Darley, 1968). This is a model of the decisions bystanders make before deciding to intervene in an emergency. An experiment was done in 1969 by Latané and Darley to prove humans’ innate gravitation towards acting according to the majority. Male college students were recruited and they were made to believe they were participants of a market research concerning board games. The participants played the role of bystanders. While in the waiting room, participants were made to fill out a preliminary questionnaire as a distraction. The female interviewer in the experiment was then instructed to stage an injury where the sound of a crashing cabinet would be heard and she would call out in pain. The experiment revealed that participants who were alone in the waiting room attempted to take action “nearly 70% of the time” (Latané & Darley, 1968). When a passive participant who was trained not to respond was placed together in the waiting room with a real participant – response rate “dropped to less than 10%”. Latané and Darley (1968) also found that participants waiting with another naïve participant “responded significantly more than with the passive participant and significantly less than when alone” (as cited in Hudson & Bruckman, 2004, p. 169).

Bystanders first notice the emergency, then proceed to interpret the situation whether ‘action is necessary’ at stage 2. This is accompanied with the assessment if the situation is one in which they specifically should act – which would then lead to the final stage which is the decision to take action. However, Hudson and Bruckman (2004) contend that though one might see action as necessary, the vast number of social media users will impede one from taking action – because the user does not identify that he or she should specifically act, thus causing the responsibility of action to diffuse. The decision tree then stops at stage 2 where the user starts to weigh the significance of their actions in a pool of 1.86 billion Facebook users (Statista, 2017) – therefore causing a delayed response. The problem then, with delayed responses is that it will often “lead to inaction altogether”, where “the longer bystanders wait to respond, the less likely they are ever to actually respond” (Hudson & Bruckman, 2004, p. 169).

The incidence of ‘trending information’ in social media due to the growth of its usership has led to increasing desensitization amongst users and it also impedes the search for important information during times of crisis. It is identified that despite social media’s ability to easily share important primary data – it can get lost it an endless flood of “recycled content” of mass data due to the “hashtags” and “repost” function of platforms like Twitter (Potts & Mapes, 2016). This then creates difficulties in locating data and validating information. While assessing the 2015 Paris Attacks in comparison to the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Potts and Mapes found that in 2009, the average number of tweets was at 2 million per day – this grew to 200 million by June 2011 (Twitter, 2011). Thus, with trending hashtags such as #PrayForParis in 2015, this resulted in a massive amount of ‘reposted data’ enabled by the ‘retweet’ function. These ‘recycled content’ can clog networks (Potts & Mapes, 2016, p. 76), making it a challenge to locate real primary data regarding the attacks that is vital in disaster aid as these are lost in a “deluge of messages imparting sadness, prayer and support” (Potts & Mapes, 2016, p. 75). 

The reoccurrence of hashtags conveying sadness, prayer and support in crisis situation can also cause the user to become desensitized – a lack of emotion due to repeated occurrences of an incident. A study of mass media has identified the ‘Cumulative Effects Theory’ (Noelle-Neumann, 1993) where media messages become more influential over time due to repeated exposure. However, the loophole in this theory is the emergence of desensitization. It is contended that repeated exposure to media messages over time can cause users to become less responsive to its effects. The constant reoccurrences of hashtags relaying empathy and support e.g. #PrayForParis during the 2015 Paris Attacks and #PrayForMalaysia during the disappearance of the MH370 airplane in 2014 on Twitter seemed one too many of a ‘crisis’ and thus there is an increased chance for desensitisation – one which impedes action due to a lack of emotional response, thus contributing to the bystander effect.

The anonymous function in social media blurs the line between the act of preserving justice and online harassment, giving rise to a new group of users deemed ‘online vigilantes’ who exploit the viral nature of the internet to expose personal information. The option to appear anonymous allowed for online users to take things into their own hands and exercise ‘peer-to-peer ethics’ (Ward & Wasserman, 2010)  – leading to the emergence of ‘Do-It-Yourself Justice’ (Rizza et al., 2012). The idea of ‘Do-It-Yourself Justice’ is similar to concept of cyber vigilantism – a self-appointed doer of justice that often involves “taking the law into one’s own hands and attempting to enact justice according to one’s own understanding of right and wrong” (Crime Museum, n.d.). In 2010, Ward and Wasserman argued that social media users may be media critiques where “peer-to-peer accountability” (p. 286) can take several forms – status updates, blog posts, twitter feeds. They are exchanges in which ‘netizens’ (online citizens) are able to keep others ‘in-check’ – praising the good ones and calling out the wrong. Alicia Ann Lynch fell victim to this phenomenon for dressing up as a Boston marathon victim during Halloween in 2013 which was uploaded on both Instagram and Twitter. A photo of her driver’s license was leaked by netizens and she was called out for being insensitive. It was also reported that she experienced online harassment via death threats and derogatory comments by anonymous users (Zarrell, 2013), to which she soon resorted to the deletion of her Twitter account.

We thus see how this phenomenon of ‘Do-It-Yourself’ justice, accompanied with the anonymous function, blurs the line between preserving justice and online bullying by inducing public shame. The internet’s ability to withhold and propagate personal information breeds dangerous ground for online harassment as well. Twitter, for example allows users to delete their accounts, however, the service still holds users’ personal data for 30 days. After which, Twitter then “begin[s] the process of deleting [your] accounts from [their] systems, which can take up to a week” (Twitter Help Centre, 2016). Explaining that despite Lynch’s efforts in deleting her personal account, information about her would not be entirely wiped out from the internet due to the time-frame required by Twitter and also due to the ‘recycled content’ and ‘reposted data’ propagated by other online users. This therefore adds to the bystander effect as the vast number of social-media-users-turned-online-vigilantes will impede the righteous user to stand up for the ones bullied as one mere voice against the vast majority might be a risk too large for the average user, resulting in the diffusion of responsibility. Users witnessing online bullying taking place can also become increasingly desensitized to it, as discussed earlier.

It is important to acknowledge however – an alternative perspective: that the bystander effect can be exploited by organizations to further their research and cause for aid during times of crisis. The user-friendly function of social media platforms has aided in furthering causes for crisis aid due to the convenience it provides for the average user – allowing masses of primary, first-hand information to surface in the web. An interview with James Spann, a Chief Meteorologist  at ABC 33/40 in Birmingham noted that the ease of taking a picture or video and uploading it onto platforms like Twitter and Facebook “served as a lifeline during [the] generational tornado outbreak on April 27, 2011” (Lipschultz, 2014, p. 8). He expressed that the key to social media use in times of crisis was particularly that bystanders – or even witnesses, served as prime providers of key primary information. This idea of ‘audience engagement’ during life-threatening weather events allow instantaneous collection of information e.g. ‘live’ pictures and videos of the 2011 Atlantic Hurricane ‘Super Outbreak’, thus aiding professional meteorologists to evaluate the storm, making the warning process more effective. The bystander effect has therefore amassed for a plethora of first-hand information during crisis, of which organizations can exploit to further aid contributions. This therefore shines an alternative light to the consequence of the bystander effect, that it may not always result in an increasingly desensitized online generation, but rather – it is how we choose to use it to pursue the greater good.

Concluding, we have assessed how the various functions of social media have contributed to the burgeoning ‘bystander effect’. The easily functional interface ‘double-tap and scroll’ on Instagram adds onto the passive actions of the average user, creating the growth of an increasingly desensitized online generation. While we have explored how the bystander effect has come into play, in an increasingly changing world where adaptation is constantly deemed vital for progress – perhaps that is exactly what we should do: to adapt. The power of numbers has proved itself to be a powerful force capable of creating change, thus the exploitation of the bystander effect in furthering causes for aid may be the direction our generation can choose to focus on. The burgeoning bystander effect created by social media use is no lie, however, what we choose to do with it – is what we as the children of this ever-changing era, can focus our light on.

Works Cited:

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