Bystander effect: Why people watch murder and public humiliation without helping
New Delhi: A young man is killed on a busy weekend evening in a Delhi colony, scores of people watching passively or walking on as he is knifed by three men.
Far away from the bustling urban locality of Sunder Nagri, a young woman from a village in Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh, is allegedly gangraped, stripped and walks for two kilometres naked, battered, bruised and bleeding, her trauma captured in a grainy video that goes viral.
Both incidents happened exactly a month apart. While 21-year-old Manish was stabbed to death following old rivalry on the evening of October 1, the young woman was sexually assaulted on September 1 though the video emerged later. The disparate stories from two distinct societal worlds are strung together by a common, disturbing thread — why did no one come forward to save Manish, or stop to shield the woman, cover her and help her get home?
It’s called bystander effect, said Manoj Kumar Sharma, clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS). It renders onlookers unable to assess the incident and act appropriately.
“Bystander effect or bystander apathy states that individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when there are other people present. Because there are other observers, individuals do not feel as much pressure to take action. The responsibility to act is thought to be shared among all of those present,” Sharma told PTI.
“When other observers fail to react, individuals often take this as a signal that a response is not needed or not appropriate.”
During such moments, he added, people often look to others in the group to determine what is appropriate. “When they see that no one else is reacting, it sends a signal that perhaps no action is needed.”
Those who clicked videos of the young woman in Moradabad or witnessed Manish being killed are a cruel rewind to the numerous times people watched the humiliation of others a woman being paraded by her assaulters in Delhi earlier this year, the many women branded witches, stripped and made to walk through villages and the fairly commonplace sight of passers-by looking on as attackers garland their victims with shoes and show them off.
The passive watcher’ gaze is about inaction, the audacity of filming a violent crime and sheet lack of empathy, say experts. All of this has been exacerbated by access to technology and social media. The hunger for social media recognition and a sense of novelty of witnessing a horrendous act first hand drives a crowd to film the victim.
According to forensic psychologist Deepti Puranik, the easy accessibility of technology in the form of smartphones has enabled people to readily make videos and upload them on social media to “get maximum likes to become popular”.
“In the competition to get maximum likes, individuals have lost their sense of right or wrong,” Puranik told PTI.
Uploading such videos on social media can also be a way to threaten the victim against speaking out.
“Technological advances have made it easy for perpetrators to use social media as a method of seeking revenge with the victim. This certainly shows pathological symptoms of perpetrators who have no remorse for their actions,” Puranik noted.
She explained that while in both incidents bystanders watched passively, it is only in the case of the woman that people made videos.
“Murder and rape are two different types of crime. While in murder people want to disassociate with it for its violent nature, when it comes to a woman raped and walking naked they feel she deserves it and don’t want to be involved. Besides standing passively, they make videos as well,” Puranik said.
NIMHANS’ Sharma said the act of making a video shows people are more attuned to capture “an atrocious event which seems plausible and accessible to them”.
“This can indicate that some people might feel drawn to the sensational aspect of the event or feel a novelty of uploading a video but would like to distance themselves from getting directly involved with the situation,” Sharma told PTI.
According to anti-rape activist Yogita Bhayana, there are riders while sharing videos of victims and rape survivors on social media.
“Anything that may reveal the identity of the victim, and blood and gore should be blurred out. While sharing it on social media, proper authorities should be notified about the incident. Otherwise you are just an accomplice to the entire act,” Bhayana said.
The incidents of gender crime videos being put on social media are many.
In April this year, a woman in a village in Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada district was allegedly stripped naked and assaulted by a group of people as several villagers looked on. The videos of the incident were readily shared on social media.
In July 2021, a 23-year-old in Gujarat’s Dahod was paraded naked by her husband and other villagers as punishment for eloping with another man. A purported video circulated widely on social media showed the husband and other men dragging the woman, stripping and thrashing her in the presence of other women and children, police said.
Backing the bystander effect’ theory, Puranik said the patriarchal belief that the woman is responsible for such acts is still prevalent in society, buttressing the less empathetic response from bystanders.
Sociologist-author Rukmini Sen said the behaviour of people, generally men, may be “psychologised and made to appear as something which is deeply personal, a pathological mindset”. But there is more to it.
“There is definitely a structural failure in being able to address questions of power, authority, gender, patriarchy in our everyday lives–through education, media, popular culture or government campaigns,” the Ambedkar University professor told PTI.
“What kind of continuous awareness programmes, school education or government radio and television campaigns which talk about the ills of social media even exist in our cultures?” she questioned.
She suggested that critical discussions on “gendered roles, masculine power and state support to criminals” are needed in order to be able to address violent incidents of similar nature.
“Making a punitive law or providing technological access without inculcating lessons of gendered responsibilities when using them can prove dangerous and these kinds of incidents only reaffirm that,” Sen said.