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The Digital Bystander

Live-streaming apps like Facebook Live and Periscope give us a voyeuristic peek into the lives of others. But what is our obligation when we encounter digital violence?

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The Digital Bystander

Produced by Catherine Olian and Karen Sughrue
Original Release
June 4, 2017

Live-streaming apps like Facebook Live and Periscope give us a voyeuristic peek into the lives of others. But what is our obligation when we encounter digital violence?

Social media promised to connect us with our friends, and the world beyond. We have discovered that that includes the happy, the sad and now, the depraved.

Perhaps it was inevitable that videos of playful cats would give way to the darker side of human nature, as ever-present cameras captured the violence taking place in society. But a new level of shock was reached recently when Facebook Live was used to show a live rape and a live beating.

The crimes were horrific enough, but other questions surfaced: Why would someone film an assault instead of intervening? And why didn’t those watching online call the police?

Those troubling questions bring to mind a phenomenon social scientists call the “bystander effect,” first identified some 50 years ago after the legendary murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City, a case that sheds light on what is happening today in the digital age.

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