‘Lost in the likes’ – The psychology of a filming bystander
What’s Trending Aug 26, 2016
‘Lost in the likes’ – The psychology of a filming bystander

In the Good Samaritan parable, most people forget there were two previous passers-by on the road where that humble hero helped another man who was ambushed by highway robbers:

  • The cowardly man who was paralyzed by fear and fled the scene
  • The pious looky-loo who judged the fallen victim as probably having deserved it

It’s the psychology of the latter that’s resurfaced in the smartphone age, as yet another filming bystander faces criminal charges.

In April, 18-year old Marina Lonina was indicted for kidnapping, pandering sexually oriented matter, sexual battery and rape, involving a minor who was alleged to be her friend.

Lonina told authorities she started recording her friend’s assault in hopes to discourage her other friend from proceeding with rape, but that she “got caught up in it by the number of likes that her live stream was getting, so she continued to do it.”

We’ve seen it time and again on viral videos; even “Seinfield” spoofed the phenomena of bystanders during criminal activities. To stand by during assaults is a heated debate of itself, but to take the extra step to capture trauma on film, then walk away, is a mortifying phenomenon of the digital age.

Bystander effect

Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., is director of the Media Psychology Research Center. “The notion of being ‘lost in the likes’ as a rationale for not stopping rape is ridiculous,” she says. “You call 911 and hit the guy over the head with a chair. The fact that she became an accomplice implies that her psychological need for approval and the thrill of the event were greater than her concern or empathy for her friend during a serious sexual assault,” Rutledge says.

N.G. Berrill is a forensic psychologist as well as the executive director of the New York Center for Neuropsychology and Forensic Behavioral Science. Both Berrill and Rutledge agree social media has instigated a growing sentiment of desensitization and a surreptitious need for validation.

In Lonina’s ten-minute streaming video, the victim audibly pleads “no” and “help me.” Meanwhile, Lonina can be heard laughing.

Clinicians call the indifference to persecution or dire events the bystander effect, also known as bystander apathy or bystander indifference. Essentially, when more people are witness, the less of a chance one will break out of the subconscious alliance to lend aid.


The filming bystander isn’t the only one with a scarlet letter. The number of people who viewed and “liked” Lonina’s streaming video online is also of concern. It should be noted one of her online friends was disturbed enough to call and inform police of the assault in process, but scores of others did not. Online bystander indifference to traumatic situations is a common occurrence. So is the new trend of what’s been dubbed clicktivism, or perceived activism by clicking, commenting or posting on social media.

Clicktivism may satiate that individual on social media, but it takes emotional awareness and intention to break out of the bystander apathy and intervene.

Good Samaritan laws as it relates to violence or crimes exist in some states to protect citizens from any liability while intervening, but generally, these statutes are not punitive of the refraining bystander, as seen in the “Seinfield” episode.

A New York Times article explains, “A duty to help would not require bystanders to endanger themselves or provide help beyond their abilities; it could simply require warning someone of imminent danger or calling 911.

Break the bystander effect

According to psychologists, the filming bystander may have a more psychologically deviant version of the bystander effect, with mental disorder cues like narcissism, a sociopathic lack of empathy, “the power the [assailant] had over her, or a perverse thrill in watching her friend be victimized,” explains Rutledge.

“I think there’s some weird sense of satisfaction,” Berrill explains of people who post images of live violence or trauma. “Most people feel totally unfulfilled in their lives, unaccomplished, especially adolescents, young adults. By posting it, it elevates everyone’s mundane like to something – I don’t know – special? Even if it’s pervertedly special.”

Ken Brown, Ph.D., details what to do if you’re a victim with bystanders around.

“If you want help, you don’t need to get everybody’s attention, you need to get one person’s attention; others will likely follow.” He says call someone out by description, article of clothing or name, if possible, and request his or her personal aid.

But for social media friends of the filming bystander, not indulging the captured images with likes can help cut off their supply. Validation is currency and, in this age, “information is social capital.”