Social Media and the Bystander Effect

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Guest post by Francisco Dao, noted tech author and founder of 50Kings

If you logged on to any of your social media accounts this past Monday you undoubtedly saw an outpouring of posts thanking our veterans for their sacrifice along with multiple links to the typhoon Haiyan disaster in the Philippines. As I scrolled through my feeds I started to wonder if the appearance of support was actually discouraging people from helping either group. How many people decided posting was enough? Have social media platforms become the ultimate example of the bystander effect where nobody does anything because they assume someone else will?

The bystander effect is a well documented sociological occurrence in which people do not offer assistance when others are present. Instead, they share. The more people who appear to be available to help, the less likely any one of them will help. In some cases, such as the murder of Kitty Genovese which brought the bystander effect to the public’s attention, nobody will step up to provide assistance because everyone assumes somebody else will.

If you consider that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter resemble massive online rooms full of people, they present the perfect conditions for the bystander effect to take hold. Most of us have hundreds of Facebook friends, surely someone will step up and offer aid, right? Considering so many of them are posting about the issue it’s not an unreasonable assumption, but when everyone assumes the same thing, nobody ends up doing anything.

My friend Brian Solis led a project for the United Nations in 2010 to help increase awareness of Malaria in Africa and also generate $10 donations for bed nets. He found that initially most people shared rather than donated, essentially accomplishing just one of the two goals. In his research to uncover why, he found that people believed that their act of sharing was worth much more than a $10 contribution. He found that people truly thought that their digital influence or social capital equated to tens or even hundreds of individual donations from their connections. This inflated sense of net worth in social, if not reassessed individually, will only bankrupt the real nature and value of the network effect as Brian would say.

What happens when everyone believes they have excessive digital influence and social capital?

When we delve deeper into the factors that contribute to the bystander effect, we find that distant problems shared on social media present the ideal conditions for lack of action.

1. Ambiguity of need. If people aren’t sure what kind of help someone needs, they are less likely to offer. In the case of veterans, some need help but many are successful. Furthermore, most people don’t know how or where to offer assistance. The veterans administration? Find a random charity? Give a dollar to the guy on the corner who claims to be a veteran? Both the need and the manner of providing aid are ambiguous. In the case of typhoon Haiyan, the problem is literally on the other side of the world. All we know is what we see in pictures and what we know from a few links that might have a donation button. Social media helps us share our sentiments but does little to clarify the ambiguity of the problem at hand.

2. Cohesiveness of the group. A group which shares strong bonds between its members is more likely to offer help over one with weak bonds. Social media bonds are largely virtual. We don’t really know many of our social media connections at all. Using myself as an example, I have 911 Facebook friends and I’d estimate I’m legitimately friends with maybe 100 of them. The rest are basically entries in an online Rolodex. A social media group is likely to be far less cohesive than one you would encounter in the real world.

3. The option/possibility of diffusing responsibility. As I mentioned earlier, the larger the group the less likely people are to step in and help. In a small group, it is unreasonable to assume that someone else, or someone more qualified, is available to provide aid. But in a large group, it becomes easier to assume that there are people who are better equipped to offer assistance, and therefore easier for any one person to ignore the problem based on the assumption that someone else will take responsibility. In a giant “room” such as a social media platform, it is no stretch to take for granted that someone else will be there to help.

Returning to veteran’s day and typhoon Haiyan, I’m curious to see how our actions compare to what we display on social media. How many of you posted or tweeted some message of thanks to veterans without contributing anything of value that might be helpful to a veteran in need? How many of you shared a link about typhoon Haiyan without donating anything to aid in the Philippines? I’ll volunteer myself as the first hypocrite. I didn’t post about veterans day but I did share links about typhoon Haiyan and until I wrote this post, I had not contributed. I have now.

The social psychology of the bystander effect is proven and likely working against you. Don’t let social media turn you into a do-nothing.

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