When Aleppo Retweets Aren't Enough: It's Time to Address the "Bystander Effect" (Guest Column)

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Steven Spielberg's longtime former assistant, now a speechwriter for ex-Obama staffer Jon Favreau, says it's time to stop browsing and start doing: "Let’s promise ourselves that we will distinguish the difference between paying attention and paying it forward."

I am a news junkie. Google alerts, Twitter updates, push notifications — with one click, swipe or tap, I have it all. But because I’m shielded by my devices, what I have actually requires very little of my character. I can stop reading or end a video. I can connect (and disconnect) with people whenever I feel like it — which means I can be both involved and indifferent at the same time.

And therein lies the problem. Earlier this week I received this push notification on my iPhone: "Reports of civilians being shot execution style in Aleppo. Children, as many as 100, trapped inside buildings and tweeting their final moments."

I swiped right on the alert to read the article. But this time, that power to pop in and out of a story on my screen — that ability to disengage whenever I felt like it — didn’t feel very good. In fact, it felt wrong.

From online publications to social media to cable news, we’re inundated with information. But the way we receive and process this information is starting to feel more like a spectator sport. We scroll through articles and we look at photos on Instagram. We like or retweet quotes from others and we move on with our day. And while keeping up with current events is how we hold each other accountable, I want to be clear about something: Staying informed about injustices and atrocities is not the same thing as doing something about them.

Countless outlets posted the stories and photos from those civilians in Aleppo this week — and we need that information. We need to see the tweet from Bana Alabed, who wrote, “My name is Bana, I’m 7 years old. I am talking to the world now live from East #Aleppo. This is my last moment to either live or die.” We need to see these things to have empathy, but let’s be honest: More often than not, a tweet or an article is not accompanied by a direct and tangible way in which we, as readers and viewers, can address these problems. There isn’t always a direct correlation between information and involvement, and because of that, we are breeding an extremely well-informed culture of bystanders.

We are seeing a disturbing spread of this bystander effect — the idea that with everyone around, one person doesn’t need to do anything because someone else will get around to it. We hear it everywhere: "They’ll handle it." "I don’t want to get involved." "I don’t want to talk about politics." "My donation won’t matter." "My single voice can’t make a difference." "My vote won’t count."

But I think we know how that turns out. Let’s take this week for example: I received the push notification and read the article about Aleppo. I was devastated and my instincts to help were all there — but when I got to the end of the article, I was met with a list of news stories I could move on to. Kind of like when you’re online shopping and after you add something to your cart, you see: “Shoes you may want to pair with this dress.” This time it was, “Other articles you may be interested in.” And the first one up was: “Kanye West visits Donald Trump.”

So let me get this straight: I’m ready to get off my ass and find out who I can write to or what I can do to save these Syrian people tweeting their last moments, and I’m met with an abrupt consolation statement about how disturbing everything is in Aleppo followed by the next headline about a pop star (who didn’t vote, mind you) meeting with our President-elect?

So what’s my point in all of this? It's that we are seeing a frightening intersection of information and indifference. Giving mass murder and the Kanye West meeting the same level of attention (arguably more for the latter) is sending a reckless message that substance and spectacle are equally as important. While I naively assumed that the bystander effect would be mitigated by technology, by the fact that we could get our news quickly and efficiently, it’s simply not the case.

This is not a blanket accusation about technology, but rather a comment on how we are confusing consumption with compassion. I know that technology helps all of us, but I worry about the inadvertent complacency it’s causing. We have been reprogrammed to believe that when we read an article or watch a story about a humanitarian crisis, we’ve played our role in solving that crisis. “See, I told you I don’t live in a bubble. I know what Aleppo is!”

But that’s not enough. And if we want bystander behavior to be a thing of a bygone society, then here’s what needs to happen:

To news outlets: Please recognize that, of course, we want to see the stories of people in Aleppo. But please also recognize that for as compelling and heartbreaking as your videos or articles may be, these people don’t want to be memorialized or immortalized in your text. They want to be helped. They don’t want to be remembered. They want to be rescued. You have circulation. You have readership. You have an audience. Stop giving equal real estate on your homepage or airtime on your networks to a meeting between a pop star and our President-elect — and start using the space to encourage your audiences to help the people of Aleppo and to help in any other crisis that demands our attention and effort.

As for the rest of us: We can sober up. This is the Twilight Zone that has become 2016, or as I like to refer to it, the Bermuda Triangle of empathy, reason and compassion. But the good news is that, thankfully, this year is almost over — and that means we can gear up for some actual personal resolutions. Sure, I was annoyed that article didn’t end with ways for us to help people in Syria and instead led me to Kanye, but I didn’t have to click on that story. What I should have done immediately was Google ways to help refugees — because there are many ways to do that.

First, we can start by having a little more self-awareness. We’re never going to strop scrolling through news and consuming media, but while we are doing that, let’s be vigilant about how we allow technology to shape and influence our behavior.

If we see a story about the lack of food coming into Syria, let’s support the World Food Programme, an organization helping to fight hunger inside Aleppo.

Troubled by images of children injured in airstrikes? Donate to the Syrian American Medical Society and the money will go toward providing desperately needed medical treatment for refugees in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Call the International Rescue Committee (1-855-9RESCUE) and ask what items arriving refugees from Syria and other places need. Collect those items from friends and this can make a big impact on people’s first few months in our country. The IRC continues to provide humanitarian aid, medical care and educational opportunities for children in Syria. And the organization is calling on President-elect Trump and President Obama to make a joint statement saying that the U.S. will demand accountability for the atrocities inside Syria.

And of course, we should post articles and share photos from Aleppo and elsewhere. We should make sure people see these atrocities. But as we click, tap, share, post, like and retweet, let’s promise ourselves that we will distinguish the difference between paying attention and paying it forward.

Samantha Becker is a principal at Jon Favreau's Fenway Strategies where she focuses on written communications and speechwriting. Prior to joining the company, Becker spent a decade as an executive assistant to Steven Spielberg and played an integral role at DreamWorks Studios, now Amblin Partners, by contributing to research and publicity materials as well as crafting speeches. She has also written for the USC Shoah Foundation.

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