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How tech can combat the bystander effect

If used correctly, technology can help communities become more active in emergency response situations. Amir Elichai, CEO and Founder, Carbyne, explains how.

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The responsibility to help during an emergency falls on anyone present and capable of lending a hand. While there may be occasional good Samaritans who are able to aid, more often than not, the main responsibility falls on emergency respondents to step in.

 

Understandably, the shock of witnessing a mugging, hijacking, terrorist attack or even a car accident can leave a bystander paralysed with shock and uncertain about what to do, or even fearful of getting involved altogether. A harrowing, often-cited case in point is the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese – a New York woman was stabbed to death outside her apartment while dozens of witnesses reportedly heard her crying for help, and not a single one stepped into help or even called the police.

 

While recent investigations have called into question just how many witnesses there were at the scene, the fact is that no one offered to help or even call for qualified aid. The Genovese case has served for more than half a century as a key case study for the bystander effect. This effect describes the phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer a victim help when there are other people in the area. Moreover, bystanders are likely to leave the responsibility of intervention to the professionals for fear of getting involved.

 

The more bystanders there are, the lower the chances that any will intervene.

 

Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley popularised the concept of the bystander effect following Genovese’s homicide. The theory suggests that onlookers shift the responsibility of action to one another. Witnesses to an incident may often fear that their intervention could escalate a crisis or jeopardise their safety and therefore hope someone else will respond. In fact, the more bystanders there are, the lower the chances that any will intervene.

 

Shared responsibility

 

Should the obligation of assistance only fall on the professionals, and if not, how can we overcome this diffusion of responsibility? One answer is technology. Recent years have given rise to new technologies that can facilitate actionable decisions, spur bystanders to respond in a crisis, help emergency respondents and even save lives.

 

Technology is obviously no cure-all. In fact, tech has occasionally even amplified the bystander effect, particularly in the virtual age of social media and instant communication. In the viral recording of a man being dragged off a United Airlines flight in April 2017, for example, passengers can be seen filming the spectacle, but no one is seen intervening. A similar scenario arose in 2014, when bystanders filmed a New Jersey woman being beaten by her co-worker. The onlookers record the scene but do nothing to help.

 

Our camera phones may make us feel like we’re documentarians, but this is hardly helpful if the recording of an incident is by people with the power to respond, relieving them from the willingness to stand up and act in an unfolding crisis. In many ways and in a variety of circumstances, people feel more comfortable filming their experiences than living in them.

 

Video footage

 

In some cases, video footage has played an important part in retrospective action and there have been notable examples of video-taking enabling onlookers to promote social action and highlight instances of wrongdoing.

 

When video footage from the Texas Department of Public Safety showed aggressive police treatment of 28-year-old Sandra Bland during a traffic stop prior to her death in police custody, it helped illuminate the circumstances surrounding her death and her treatment at the hands of police, spurring calls for justice and change.

 

Tech already has in some ways enhanced the public’s role in crime prevention handling, enabling law enforcement to rely not only on witness testimony but also on crowdsourced evidence, from video recordings to social media posts.

 

Real-time insights

 

While a phone recording might enable a different retrospective handling of a situation, videoing the footage can also now be used to help save a life in that moment. Tech is providing the capability for bystanders to stream videos from the scene or from the victims themselves to help first responders prioritise incoming emergency calls and dispatch the right vehicles and resources.

 

Utilising this technology to implement a new mainstream emergency reporting platform would also facilitate emergency respondents who could instruct bystanders through the platform.

 

Utilising this technology to implement a new mainstream emergency reporting platform would also facilitate emergency respondents who could instruct bystanders through the platform.

 

The advancements that have significantly impacted the ways in which we interact with each other on a social level could be applied to the ways in which we interact and respond in a crisis.

 

Though it may not eliminate the bystander effect altogether, this technology can change how we respond in crisis situations, not by just watching and reporting through our phones, but also by bringing technology into the present moment of crisis.

 

Harnessing this potential would help alleviate the pressure on professionals who currently often hold complete responsibility for bringing about positive outcomes.

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