The Bystander Effect Online

By: Ben Okun

We’re all familiar with the psychological phenomenon, the bystander effect, in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when there are other people present. As the number of bystanders to a given incident increases, the likelihood of one of those bystanders offering help decreases, because everyone assumes that someone else will take charge and do something.

Normally when we think of the bystander effect, we think of incidents such as someone getting bullied in front of a group of people or a crime occurring in a public setting, with no one stepping up to defend the victim or help. However, social media potentially brings about a new kind of bystander effect, one in which people are not at the incident physically, but are there virtually.

Imagine for a second, that Facebook and Twitter are gigantic rooms that hold millions of people. When one of your friends posts about a specific incident or cause, that message is broadcast to hundreds of people, some of which will like or retweet the message. Out of all the likes, shares and retweets that the original message received, how many of those people actually donated if it was for a cause, or were proactive if it was for a specific incident? People will see that a page has a few thousand likes on it and will assume that others in the group are the ones physically offering aid. People might think that liking something shows they are a supporter of a cause and that that is enough on their part. This is a prevailing problem that is created by the convenience of social media.

Take for example Typhoon Haiyan that struck the Philippines earlier this month. The devastating typhoon has killed more than 5,000 people and has caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. The official Facebook page for Typhoon Haiyan relief has 2,053 likes and the Twitter account has 1,801 followers. While it’s great that thousands of people are spreading awareness, there is really no telling how many of those people have actually donated to the relief efforts. I’m sure thousands of people have in fact donated and provided aid, but liking a page provides no clear indication one way or the other.

Social media is a great tool for sharing stories, spreading awareness and starting conversations. All of these things are fantastic, but in the case of a major tragedy like Typhoon Haiyan or even a minor incident like a bullying story, providing virtual aid is not the same as physical aid. While digital influence can be quite powerful in this day and age, awareness of a situation can only do so much. What is worth more? A $10 donation or sharing a cause on Facebook? This is an impossible question to answer, as it all depends on how many people donate after they have shared the cause to their friends.

No one likes to be accused of being a bystander, but I’m sure we have all been there in one way or another. The convenience and accessibility of supporting a cause on social media has produced a new form of the bystander effect. I’m not saying that everyone who shows virtual support on social media is a bystander, but liking or sharing a story should not be confused with physical donations. Do not let social media turn you into a couch-potato who simply likes every single cause that they come across online. Do not just assume that out of the thousands of other followers, someone else will donate. In addition to the support you show on social media, be proactive and be the one to step up and provide actual aid.

If you truly support something, prove it!

Have you witnessed the bystander effect in virtual spaces such as social media? Is there a solution to get people to be more active?

As always, I welcome any and all comments. If you like what you read, be social and share. 


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