While discussing the recent metaphorical train wreck at Penn State University, one of the members of our editorial board brought up a literal wreck he once experienced.
On Wick Avenue years ago, a car spun out, toppled over and crashed into the guardrail. He said that he rode in the passenger seat with his sister, and he asked if they should stop; she said no seeing as a few other people had parked along the side. He sat silently, agreeing, as they drove off, and the crash disappeared into the rear view mirror.
He admitted that his complacency, more than the crash itself, stayed with him even after they discovered that the victim had walked away unmolested.
This, as many first-year psychology majors and crime drama aficionados know, is commonly referred to as the bystander effect. In layman’s terms, the bystander effect refers to the propensity of individuals to ignore people in danger, specifically in crowds or groups. Though he was not actually in the crowd, he was impacted by the presence of others crowding around the car.
Now back to our other wreck. A police investigation revealed Tuesday that members of the Penn State Kappa Delta Rho fraternity had taken photos of naked, unconscious women and had been posting them on the group’s Facebook page for the better part of a year. And, as you may have guessed, this was not consensual.
Of course, the salient point that this is an egregious breach of everything good and proper is likely going to be accepted by everyone but serial killers. This doesn’t make it less disgusting of course, but the devil is found both in the headline and in the details. You see, the page they posted these photos on included 144 members. One person went to the police.
Don’t you love people?
Though this group was made for the intent of showing these nude photos, we know at least one person was against it. While the majority of it reveled in it, there must have been an in-between — members of the group who were invited and either left or ignored the page.
These, in addition to the individual who took apparently took eight months to report this, are the few we want to talk about because they represent the larger problem of disassociation among social media users.
This group of careless Facebook users may actually have something in common with our editorial board member — both ignoring others’ distress. He, however, made a choice in the moment and regretted it later. The key phrase here is “in the moment.”
Those commonly subjected to the bystander effect are often making decisions out of a fear that their involvement will place them in a dangerous, vulnerable situation. They would far rather let a figure they see as an authority act. They would far rather let someone else in the group deal with it.
Sometimes someone else acts and sometimes they don’t — sometimes people die. But it is all in the moment, and the human mind cannot always be seen as rational actor; we are all well aware that instinct runs the game in moments of high stress.
You know what isn’t a high stress situation? Watching, or being aware of, naked photos of obviously non-consenting girls being posted again and again on a Facebook page and doing nothing.
This is, of course, the same foible in the human mind that causes the bystander effect, even if it is a distinct phenomenon — the desire to maintain the status quo of our lives and the game of responsibility hot potato.
Unlike the common understanding of the bystander effect, however, the individuals’ choice was not a knee-jerk reaction, and, even if they made their best aghast face when the newest nudes were thrown up, they made the conscious and deliberated choice to ignore it.
This, however, isn’t only about a condemnation — it is about identifying a trend that is born from our understanding of the bystander effect.
In this so-called information age, we have miraculously created technology that at once makes users actors and observers — controversies become both immediate and distant. We are more connected than ever before and, as a result, we can play a role, however large or small, in an eclectic batch of situations. But there is still a disconnect between who we are and who we are online — a sort of ad hoc persona that lives and dies when we log on and off our computers.
If you put someone in front of a robbery, there is a good chance they will do nothing especially if in a group; if you force them to stand there alone and watch as the victim bleeds out, they are far more likely to act. This is because in the beginning moments, they are able to disassociate themselves; they are able to identify themselves as bystanders, passive observers and not actors, and this gives them the moments they need to flee before reality sets in and the magic of the crowd fades. If you force them to remain alone, however, that aforementioned reality will not leave them unaffected.
Online, they do not need time or crowds as their protection. Their profile is a consciously, meticulously crafted totem of themselves, but it is not truly them — those pixels that create a picture and those Facebook statuses do not conflate to form them. This online personality exists in a pseudo-reality, and this online world is why this whole issue was not regulated to a scrapbook tucked into a frat house — spreading to at least 144 people and likely beyond.
This wall in between the user and the web serves to perpetually assure the illusion of the bystander. Online they get the benefit of disassociation in perpetuity. But this world is no illusion; it is as real as the street corners where people walk by injured strangers.
This is in no way an excuse, but there is little we can say to convince the kids directly involved in abuses such as this that they are disgusting. We can, however, speak to the people who are aware but not participating.
We hope in identifying and understanding why we make the decisions we do, in understanding why we will passively observe harassment or sexual violations, we can overcome our nature — we can become more than simply human.