Are criminal apps and viral videos preventing bystanders from helping?

A mobile phone films a policeman

What happened at a high school in Rockville, Maryland last January was an all too familiar scene for police officers across the United States. An altercation between two boys ended in a gunshot and a 15-year-old left bleeding on a bathroom floor.

However, what witnesses to the crime did next shocked even Betsy Brantner Smith, a law enforcement veteran of nearly three decades and spokeswoman for the National Police Association.

“Students started tweeting about it,” she said. “It’s just, unfortunately, the times we live in.”

Montgomery County police confirmed that other students tweeted about a shooting, along with information about the victim and shooter.

What they didn’t do was call the police or ask for help. The injured boy was not found until later.

The time to which Ms. Brantner Smith refers is when pulling out a mobile phone became almost a reflex, even when witnessing a crime.

Sometimes passers-by take photos or film, and sometimes they take to social media.

In recent years, commercial phone apps have sprung up, encouraging passers-by to report crimes on these platforms.

The most popular of these “public safety” apps, Citizen, has more than nine million users. Founded in 2016 as “Vigilante,” it uses information from police scanners and social media to alert users to nearby emergencies.

The basic philosophy of the app is that access to information can protect the public from harm. It also includes a “record” feature that allows users to take video and film live footage from a scene.

Citizen isn’t the only such app in the US, although it’s perhaps the best known.

Other examples include Neighbors by Ring – an Amazon subsidiary – which allows users to share photos and video clips from “smart” doorbells and surveillance cameras and discuss crimes with residents. Nextdoor, a social networking service, is designed to help neighbors connect and share local news and happenings, often centered around crime.

The rise of these and similar apps in the United States – what some experts have dubbed “participatory suspicion apps” – combined with the ubiquitous use of cellphone cameras have raised fears of a new “effect viewer” digitally loaded.

When the impulse to take footage or report to apps is so prevalent, will witnesses film instead of helping or calling the police for help?

A view of the Nextdoor app

A view of the Nextdoor app

The bystander effect, also known as bystander apathy, is a theory that the presence of others discourages bystanders from intervening in an emergency.

The term dates back to the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old woman stabbed to death in New York City. Initial reports – which were later refuted – suggested dozens of people witnessed the murder but did not intervene or call the police.

Although more recent research suggests that bystanders do in fact help in most cases, public concern remains. A high-profile example last fall brought the problem into sharp relief when fellow Philadelphia commuters failed to report a rape on a train when it happened in front of them.

In most US states, bystanders have no legal obligation to intervene or help unless they have a “specific” duty to do so, such as parents, teachers, guardians. or police.

There are concerns that bystanders are seeking “notoriety” by filming something and uploading incidents, said Tamara Rice Lave, a law professor at the University of Miami.

“People want to go viral, and that competes with their duty — whether it’s a legal duty or not — but a moral duty to their fellow citizens,” she said.

Research into the psychology of people filming a crime remains sparse – although some psychologists say they believe it may be motivated by a desire to help, without having to physically intervene or act.

“We don’t have a lot of data, but the assumption is that it’s one way people are doing something,” said Elizabeth Jellico, clinical psychologist and sexual violence prevention researcher and professor at John Jay. New York College of Criminal Justice.

“I think people feel like by filming it, they’re kind of documenting [crimes] and in a way that they contribute,” added Professor Jeglic. “It helps, sometimes, in the prosecution of crimes. However, this does not immediately help the person who is attacked.”

Critics of the Citizen app have accused it of causing “paranoia” and changing perceptions of crime.

“It pretends to provide public safety, but in reality it just provides a paranoid spectacle,” said Angel Diaz, a law professor at the University of California – Los Angeles. “We shouldn’t rely on a private company to make people safer.”

“It made me feel like the city is a lot more dangerous than it is, because the number of reported crimes is quite alarming,” said Nadia Tarasova, a 22-year-old Citizen user in Chicago. .

Ms Tarasova said she was often overwhelmed with up to 30 notifications a day.

“They point out little things like a dumpster fire, or they exaggerate things. They’ll say it’s a crowd protesting when there’s only 10 kids standing in a park talking to their teacher .”

Ms. Tarasova – and millions of other users – are seeing the benefits of technology. In his case, she thinks it helps him make informed decisions about which areas it’s safe to be alone and which ones aren’t.

“I like being aware of my surroundings, especially as a woman,” she said.

Responding to questions from the BBC, a spokesperson for Citizen said the company sees its technology as “complementary” to 911.

“The citizen does not replace law enforcement,” the spokesperson said. “If a user sees a crime being committed, they should contact local authorities.”

Some researchers have also expressed concern that bystanders filming and uploading the content online could lead to racial profiling.

“I actually don’t worry about the bystander effect,” said Lauren Briges, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication. “It’s about mob justice.”

“They almost change the definition of viewer in a sense – that through the action of live streaming, or through the action of capturing and recording, it’s a form of intervention,” he said. -she adds. “Except for the fact that it’s heavily biased by race.”

The Citizens’ spokesperson said these fears are a “misinterpretation of [the app’s] basic functionality” to warn people when potentially dangerous situations occur nearby.

The company said it has taken steps to reduce the number of notifications and improve their relevance and frequency to address criticism of the app’s impact on perceptions of crime.

“We also avoid posting vague descriptions of suspects or suspicious people,” the spokesperson said.



The number of people filming and using crime-reporting apps will only increase in the future, especially as young, tech-savvy digital natives begin to form a larger segment of the population.

It will be important to teach bystanders to do more and act in the moment, such as calling 911 or attempting to respond safely, not just filming, Prof Jeglic said. She compared it to the sexual assault education given in many high schools and universities across the country.

“I think the more we teach students how to intervene, the more likely they are to practice those strategies and the more likely they are to intervene,” she said. “The more comfortable we are with a game plan before it happens in an emergency, the more likely we are to act instinctively.”

Others are not so sure.

Kevin McMunigal, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University and a former federal prosecutor, said he thinks the US approach – in which the law cannot compel people to help – means that in many cases, people can film instead.

“It seems very counter-intuitive [to film] because it’s against his moral compass or what is right and wrong,” he said. “But the American approach is very individualistic.

“It’s the same kind of ‘rights’ you see with people saying they don’t want a vaccine or to wear a mask. People don’t want the law telling them when they should be good Samaritans .

“It’s unbelievable to me that this is such a prevalent view in the United States, but it is.”

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