THE BLOG
06/05/2014 12:30 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2014

Videotaping Death and the Dying on a Dallas Freeway: The Perversion of Social Media and Smart Phones in a Voyeuristic Culture

The "perversion of social media."

That's how Lt. Anthony Williams of the Dallas Police Department aptly and succinctly summed up the actions of a large group of bystanders on a Dallas area highway on June 2 who apparently chose to reach for their smart phones to videotape people burning up in a car rather than take any steps to save them.

"A person's actually dying in front of their eyes, and rather than you making it a priority, putting yourself in the role of a first responder, just to try to help out in some way, you choose your priority to be filming somebody's death," Williams told a reporter from KDFW Fox 4. Only one person, according to Williams, bothered to help him as the people in the car burned alive.

If Williams' account is true, then the video vultures on that Dallas highway are symptomatic of our voyeuristic culture: we'd rather watch others than interact with them.

Psychologists might attribute part of what happened to the bystander effect. This theory, which often is associated with the murder of Kitty Genovese in March 1964 in New York City, holds that

the greater the number of people present, the less likely people are to help a person in distress. When an emergency situation occurs, observers are more likely to take action if there are few or no other witnesses.


This relates to a concept called diffusion of responsibility, under which "people are less likely to take action or feel a sense of responsibility in the presence of a large group of people. Essentially, in a large group of people, people may feel that individual responsibility to intervene is lessened because it is shared by all of the onlookers."

Today, some scholars suggest that "the Internet desensitizes us to shocking images and diminishes our empathic skills. We can't turn away from videos of gruesome events that we view online - we have that same kind of grim curiosity that compels drivers to slow down and gaze at a fatal car crash." The late professor Clifford Nass of Stanford University asserted that "the ultimate risk of heavy technology use is that it diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another, even in the same room."

Regardless of the reasons, let's face it - the "let's roll" Todd Beamers of the world are growing increasingly rare. Few people seem ready to take heroic action when the situation that confronts them demands it.

Life has become a spectator sport. Do we really feel that by taking a video that we are taking action? The videos captured at the scene of the Dallas accident undoubtedly will migrate to the Internet in the coming days and weeks. There, they will live on forever in the bowels of cyberspace, becoming digital dung for satiating our morbidly voyeuristic proclivities.

Let's hope that some tabloid doesn't put the photographs on its cover, akin to what the New York Post did on Dec. 4, 2012 with the horrific front-page photo of a man about to be run over by a subway and carrying the caption "Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die."

Of course, legally speaking, there generally is no duty to rescue another person. As Professor Jonathan Turley sums it up, "under the common law, one of the more controversial rules is the 'no duty to rescue rule' that says that, if you were not responsible for placing someone in danger or risk, you have no obligation to help them even when it would cost little to save their life." Thus, the people who snapped photos and took videos in Dallas on Monday did nothing unlawful.

The "no duty to rescue" rule legally excuses inaction, but these bystanders were not passive observers. They were active participants, directors of a made-for-YouTube clip so tragic and sensational, it couldn't possibly exist in real life. But it did.

And law and ethics are two very different matters, and what transpired on that stretch of Dallas highway, assuming the account of Lt. Williams is correct, is an ethical disgrace. It's impossible to predict, of course, how we would act if confronted by a similar situation. But for now, let's just pledge to prioritize life over video.