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What We Owe Each Other: The Dark Side of the Digital Bystander Effect

What We Owe Each Other: The Dark Side of the Digital Bystander Effect

With 5 million followers and counting, Mario Mirante is one of TikTok’s most prolific creators. Known for his boisterous demeanour and reaction videos, the comedian is no stranger to going viral, so it wasn’t surprising when he did just that a few weeks ago.

What did shock people, though, was the content of this particular video posted to his page. 

In it, Mario denounced the idea that he and other influencers with large followings have a responsibility to speak on world issues. While he never named the subject specifically, many interpreted “world issues” as an allusion to the ongoing genocide of Palestinians. 

Although the video was quickly removed, it sparked immediate backlash — so much so that Mario posted again the following day, apologising for the original video and calling it “a mistake”. 


I will do better. You deserve better. I can do better. And I am sorry.

♬ original sound – Mario Mirante

For some, that’s where the story ends. An influencer made a misstep, got called out, and said he was sorry. For others, though, Mario’s outburst was a sharp reminder of a broader issue, a case study of a pervasive passivity known as the bystander effect — something we’ve become all too comfortable with in both real-world and online settings.

What is the bystander effect?

When someone is in trouble, you help them. It’s basic humanity, right? Not according to our psychology. 

The bystander effect is a psychological phenomenon where people are less inclined to assist a victim in an emergency when others are around. 

There are several contributing factors to the bystander effect, one being the diffusion of responsibility. Because other people are nearby, it’s easy to assume someone else will intervene; therefore, you don’t need to. There’s also social influence; we subconsciously look to other people to know how to act in social settings. If no one speaks up or intervenes, it reinforces the idea that we don’t have to either.

Thanks to the rise in digital communication, the bystander effect has permeated online spaces — and it’s even more complex in these contexts. 

Consider the diffusion of responsibility, for example. The internet is incredibly saturated; TikTok alone has more than 1.5 billion monthly active users. Because we know how many people are in the same virtual space, our perception of minimised responsibility becomes more amplified. However, the opposite can also be true; the mob mentality in online spaces can incite people to speak out on various issues. If someone sees their favourite influencers commenting on a particular situation, they’ll likely feel inclined to do the same — even if they’re not well-versed in the subject matter. 

While social media influencers can empower us to speak out on world issues despite not knowing everything about them, our self-perception often inhibits us. In many circumstances, we believe that, while someone should intervene, it shouldn’t be us because we’re not particularly knowledgeable about the topic at hand. It’s this exact sentiment that Mario expressed in his video, highlighting that he “knows nothing” about world issues and isn’t “qualified” or “certified” to comment on them.

Not my job: Understanding the nuances of influencers’ professional duty

This specific element of Mario’s video prompted many online users to rush to his defence, backing his mindset with one recurring justification: that’s not his job. He’s a comedian who built his platform by telling jokes. Why would he be obliged to speak out on injustices? Why should we expect so much of people whose jobs are simply to entertain?

Writing for Vox, Rebecca Jennings echoes this belief, asserting that celebrities and influencers “should not be the moral compasses of the masses. We have other people who are supposed to be doing that — for example, political and spiritual leaders who are beholden to us as citizens rather than as consumers.”

Others, however, feel very differently, including Dr Marc Cheong. As a senior lecturer at The University of Melbourne, Dr Cheong’s work focuses largely on the intersection of social media and ethics.

“Social media influencers — as with celebrities who may not be on social media — are looked upon as role models,” he explains.

Part of a role model’s professional responsibility, he continues, is helping to shape “right” behaviours and promoting ethical actions.

“Social media celebrities have the ethical duty to call out injustice on social media, prevent online feuds, and encourage fans’ healthy interactions,” he says. 

The power of trying

So, depending on who you ask, influencers actually do have a professional obligation to comment on world issues. But what about their social responsibility? 

While the discourse around influencers’ professional duties is worthwhile, it largely misses the crux of the matter. From an ethical standpoint, the question we should be asking isn’t, “What do influencers owe their audiences?” but rather, “What do we owe one another as human beings?”

It’s this exact query explored by philosopher T.M. Scanlon in his book What We Owe to Each Other, which led him to develop the concept of social contractualism — the idea that acting morally is following principles that no one else could reasonably reject. 

Scanlon’s name might ring a bell as his magnum opus was covered extensively in Michael Schur’s sitcom The Good Place

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The show follows four unlikely friends navigating the afterlife and trying to establish a moral code to live by. This is something protagonist Eleanor struggles with given that she was utterly immoral during her time on Earth. From berating strangers to lying pathologically, she was, simply put, not a great person. It’s only after her death that she sees the error in her ways and tries to become a better person by learning and abiding by principles like Scanlon’s.

But the show — and social contractualism itself — isn’t about a matter of perfection. Instead, the operative word is “try”. According to Todd May, a professor who advised The Good Place creators in later seasons, trying is at the heart of living altruistically: “The idea that [Schur] keeps coming back to is that you try — you won’t always succeed but you try.”

From digital onlookers to digital activists: Overcoming the digital bystander effect

While it may all sound simple, trying to be a better person can be intimidating, particularly for public figures who face criticism regardless of their actions and decisions. 

According to TikTok creator Erin Hattamer — who regularly speaks out on the atrocities occurring in Palestine and promotes donation links to her 1.4 million followers — this sense of overwhelm and fear can prevent influencers from speaking out on world issues. 

However, for Erin and many other creators, the alternative of succumbing to ignorance and inaction is far more catastrophic.

“I urge [these creators] to put [their concerns] in perspective [by comparing them] to what the people of Palestine are going through. It is difficult to have a million voices yelling at you but it is nothing compared to what is happening in Gaza,” she says. “If being uncomfortable is what is stopping you, I would ask you: is your comfort worth the lives of the people of Gaza?”

If more social media users — creators and spectators alike — adopt this mindset, the digital landscape has the power to act as a vehicle for advocacy and empathy.

That said, advocacy without accuracy means nothing. When speaking out on world issues, creators need to avoid spreading misinformation that could harm the causes they wish to help. By striking a balance between empathy and facts, we stand a chance of not only overcoming the digital bystander effect but fulfilling our moral obligation to those we share the world with.

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