In March 1964 a young woman, Kitty Genovese, was brutally assaulted while (it was claimed) 38 neighbors looked on but did nothing. Can the bystanders to Genovese’s slaying be put on a par with bystanders to online violent crimes today?  And if not, should they—unlike the Genovese bystanders—be held legally accountable? A recent New York Times Retro-Report raises these questions.

Consider: 

In April, this past Easter Sunday, 37-year-old Steve Stevens broadcast his cold-blooded shooting of a random victim, 74-year-old Robert Godwin, Sr. on Facebook Live. He also boasted responsibility for 12 other murders, but no evidence supports his claim.

Unfortunately, his chilling video—shot on the streets of Cleveland—was not the first instance of a criminal act being streamed live, to the greatest possible audience. In March, two adolescents and at least two other young men lured a 15-year-old girl to a house in Chicago and sexually assaulted her, brutally and repeatedly. Her assailants streamed their crimes on Facebook Live, and from counts that were posted, approximately 40 people watched in real time.

In January, four assailants (two women and two men) beat and tortured a young mentally disabled man in Chicago. The live-stream video, which lasted for almost 30 minutes, reached more than 16,000 simultaneous viewers. (“Worse yet, one assailant was so devoid of empathy for the victim that she whined on camera about not having much of a digital audience: 'Ain’t nobody watching.'”)

Finally, “in Columbus, Ohio, last year, an 18-year-old woman witnessed her teenage friend being raped. Instead of stepping in to help the victim, or at least calling the police, she streamed a live video of the assault on the Periscope app. 'She got caught up in the ‘likes,’” a prosecutor said. In a plea bargain, she was found guilty of obstruction of justice and sentenced to nine months in prison.

In none of these instances did a single witness call authorities. And even though Facebook took the videos down within an hour of their streaming, I had no trouble finding parts (if not all) of these graphic videos online.  

As it turns out, the Kitty Genovese incident that drew national attention to the moral dubiousness of watching a crime, while saying nothing, was based on sensationalized news reporting. Front page headlines claimed that 38 witnesses to the crime, which involved between 2 and 3 separate attacks, during which Ms. Genovese was raped, stabbed 14 times, and left for dead, did nothing. (Note: there was no 9-1-1 system in 1964). Subsequent investigative research, however, put the number of witnesses closer to between three and seven (one of whom yelled and chased Moseley away, and two others whom eventually did call police), and exposed mitigating circumstances (a cold night with closed windows, a street on which bar-fights often spilled onto the sidewalk). Nonetheless the story of 38 people coldly ignoring a murder beneath their windows has taken on a life of its own. Kitty Genovese “endures as a symbol of bystanders’ refusal to get involved, even as a terrible wrong is being committed in front of them and the victim’s desperation is evident.”

But did they refuse to get involved, or, as John M. Darley and Bibb Latané would famously go on to argue, did they passively stand by because they believed that someone else already had already made the call, and done the right thing — the “bystander effect”?  

The mythic number of people many still believe witnessed Kitty Genovese’s assault is strikingly similar to the number of viewers reported to have watched the video-recorded rape in Chicago. But are the bystanders to each assault comparable?  Given the technology of the 21st century—the ease of reporting, and reporting anonymously—does Darley and Latané’s concept of the ‘bystander effect’ adequately speak to today’s uninvolved witnesses? What of witnesses who do not simply ‘happen’ upon the crimes in question, but go trolling for them? \ Can on-line  bystanders ever be held legally culpable?

As the Times retro-piece reported, “fewer than a dozen states have “duty to rescue” or “duty to report” requirements [and those statutes usually apply to a narrow set of circumstances]. Such statutes are distinct from better-known Good Samaritan laws, which exist nationwide and offer protection against liability to those who act when they see people in peril.”

If on-line viewership is changing how we think about culpability, what factors come into play? Scholars have been talking about a phenomenon they call the “online disinhibition effect” for well over a decade. ODE describes the loosening of inhibitions usually present in face-to-face interactions, and attributes increases in self-disclosure on the internet to, among other things, a desensitization to on-line violence, given the game-like quality of much on-line interaction.

Should this leave us apathetic to the situation, unwilling or unable to draw boundaries because folks are becoming inured to violence? Are we just to haplessly wonder whether narcissistic perpetrators are actively seeking out the largest possible audience in a quest for attention and fame, perhaps counting on a bystander effect? (Consider Omar Mateen, the Orlando nightclub shooter. During the course of his terrorist attack—in which he killed 49 victims and wounded 53 others—he both called a local news-station and checked Facebook to see if his attack “went viral.” We are left to wonder which came first, fame-seeking or his ‘cause.’) Should we discourage an expectation of instant notoriety on the internet by urging lawmakers to pass legal  sanctions against silent witnesses? If not, do we become the bystanders as snuff films (and their derivatives) move from the dark net to the mainstream internet?

The retro-report piece concludes by noting that “there is an inherent ambiguity in some situations. As with the Genovese murder, people watching events unfold in a forum like Facebook Live may not be sure what they are seeing or hearing: Is that a real crime or a simulation?

Still, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what the philosopher John Stuart Mill might have thought of all this.“Bad men,” he said in 1867, “need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

References

 *all quotes in this article are from Clyde Haberman’s RetroReport. 

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