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Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice

Bystander Intervention and Social Media: A Listicle


Movies, television shows, and even advertisements have, over the years, begun to play an ever-larger role in the way that public opinion and behaviour is shaped.  This is show by the way that attribution is often given to entertainment in times of major news, both positive and tragic.

In small and big ways, the bystander effect and bystander intervention – or lack thereof – has often played an important role in the type of entertainment that we consume. Some examples of this can be seen below:

  • Black Mirror – Season 2, Episode 2, White Bear

While the bystander effect and the existence or lack of bystander intervention shows up often though Black Mirror, it is most prominent in the episode ‘White Bear,’ which follows an amnesiac woman who is being chased by a man with a shotgun. 90% of the human people are shown to have been brainwashed, and are occupied with filming the chaos on their phones as opposed to helping.

Though the episode explains away the lack of bystander intervention as being technologically induced, it is still an important look into the effect of a lack of bystander intervention on a victim. Admittedly an extreme example of the phenomenon, the episode still expertly shows these effects in the terror and desperation of the unnamed (at least for the majority of the episode) main character.

The episode both subverts and re-enforces this notion of the lack of bystander intervention at its climax – the bystanders are not brainwashed, but purposely filming the events of the episode for reasons revealed in the episode. This not only changes the audience’s impressions of the events of the parts of the episode they have already watched, it also makes the lack of bystander intervention that much starker when it is revealed that this was a conscious choice on the part of the audience filming the events.

  • Atithi Devo Bhava ad campaign 

The ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ advertisement campaign, starring Aamir Khan and created by the Government of India as part of the Incredible India campaign, displays the positive effects of bystander intervention in a variety of situations.

Composed a variety of standalone advertisements, it was headlined by one starring Aamir Khan as a bystander that intervenes in a case of tourists being sexually harassed. The campaign was also supplemented with ads of a variety of ordinary bystander citizens across the country stepping in to help foreigners they encounter in need of help, often being the only people willing to help despite an obvious emergency.

Created in an effort to promote positive behaviour towards international tourists visiting the country amidst a barrage of negative news stories involving tourists as victims of violent crimes, the campaign nonetheless effectively demonstrated the positive effects of bystander intervention effectively. It also depicted the effects of bystander intervention in the case of variety of situations, as opposed to purely ones involving crimes or the possibility of them.

  • Her

The 2014 movie Her revolves around a lonely man who falls in love with his AI virtual assistant, who names herself Samantha.

A major theme of the movie is the idea that advances in technology are causing humans to become de-socialized from other people. Being overly connected with technology can cause people to become isolated from each other, more distant from each other.

Towards the climatic moment of the movie, the AIs of the world vanish. In a panic, Theodore, the main character, runs out of his office building and through the streets, trying to understand what has happened to Samantha. The people around him are consumed with their own issues, many with technological devices. Yet, when Theodore stumbles and falls on the pavement as he is caught in his panic, people still instinctively reach out to help him up.

Despite the overarching theme of human distance from each other, there is still an instinctive need to help. In becoming distant from society, people are more likely to help each other, because they aren’t bound by the effects of social norms. Though paradoxical, the movie makes an important point in noticing the effect that society has on the bystander effect – we expect others to react, so we see no need to do so ourselves – and how it can be overcome by disconnecting from those social norms that bind us to negative patterns of behaviour.

  • Star Trek Into Darkness

One of the overarching elements of the Star Trek Universe, since its inception in 1966 has been the Prime Directive. The guiding principle of the intergalactic peacekeeping/military organisation Starfleet, it prohibits its members from interfering with the internal and natural development of alien civilizations. It particularly applies to civilizations that are below a certain threshold of technological, cultural, and scientific development, preventing members of Starfleet from using their superior technology to impose their own values or ideals on them.

While on the surface the concept seems to be a positive one, in its depiction in the series it often shows the bystander effect in action. It effect, the directive prevents intervention from cultures with superior technology even when said intervention is beneficial and/or necessary for the civilization being interfered with.

The directive plays a part of several episodes of the Star Trek television shows, as well as being mentioned in several movies. However, it plays a major role in the plot of Star Trek Into Darkness.

At the offset of the movie, Captain Kirk violates the directive by interfering when an active volcano threatens the existence of an alien civilization, and then when he reveals the existence of the Enterprise to them as the ship leaves the planet. Had he kept to the rules and chosen not to interfere, it would have likely led to the severe – if not complete – destruction of the species in particular. By interfering, Kirk saves numerous lives, but also invites severe censure by Starfleet leadership.

Star Trek’s Prime Directive and its adverse effects serve to show how misguided it can be to codify preventing bystanders from interfering. Though involving more than individuals helping other individuals, it remains an example of the codification and formalisation of the bystander effect – while also serving as a reminder that most regulations should usually have the space to allow for justified exceptions.

  • Doctor Who – Series 3, Episode 1, Smith and Jones

Though prominently seen in the first episode of the third series of Doctor Who, the show arguably deals with the bystander effect in both small and large ways throughout the show’s long history.

Smith and Jones, the first episode of the third series, introduces Martha Jones. A medical student, Jones is working at a hospital targeted by the alien race the Judoon, who are on the hunt for a shape-shifting fugitive. Though the Doctor manages to apprehend her and turn her over before any humans are hurt, she leaves behind a doomsday device meant to kill half of humanity.

Despite Martha’s request for help, the Judoon claim that they no longer have jurisdiction over the planet, and leave Earth to its own fate. It is only through the intervention of the Doctor that the device is disarmed and the Earth is saved. Like with the Prime Directive in the Star Wars universe, this episode displays the dangers inherent in the codification of the bystander effect, as well as the need to allow for justified exceptions in most regulations. In being willing to walk away, the Judoon implicitly wash their hands of any responsibility over the deaths of half of a planet’s population, couched in the terms of regulations.

However, the show also displays the positive effects of bystander intervention across its history through the main character of the Doctor. An alien time traveler who can transport through time and space in the blink of an eye, the Doctor represent perhaps the eternal bystander. The last member of a doomed race, the Doctor travels alongside one or more human companions, who represent her “humanity” and moral compass, and serve as witnesses to her penchant for intervening everywhere she goes.

Unlike the Judoon, the Doctor is almost incapable of turning a blind eye to issues that she can either solve or improve. Though she holds a particular fondness for humanity, the Doctor becomes a benevolent figure through a variety of alien species across the course of the long-running television show.

At the same time, she also represents the extremes of bystander intervention. When confronted with the reality of an intergalactic war that cannot be stopped, and that risks destroying the universe across both time and space, she chooses to intervene in order to cause the genocide two species – including he own – rather than risk the destruction of every living being in the universe. It poses the question of if intervention can sometimes be too severe, and how morality is challenged when both choosing to intervene and choosing not to both have devastating results.

Despite these contrasts, Doctor Who still provides one of the most undeniable examples of the importance and benefits of bystander intervention in the character of the Doctor and the importance that she holds across the universe.

Aside from in documentaries and real life dramatizations, on-screen depictions rarely use the terms ‘bystander intervention’ or ‘bystander effect.’ Despite this, a variety of television shows, films and advertisements bear witness to the fact that the importance of the bystander and their ability to intervene in a variety of situations are cross-cultural concepts. Bystander intervention becomes a powerful tool the re-enforces the fundamental fact of human interconnectedness – the fact that we are all driven by the motivation to help when we can.

Rishika Aggarwal is a Blogger at One Future Collective.

Featured image source:

Mapping and negotiating power

Uncuff India Episode 10: Dimensions of conflict and peace: visioning a utopian world

Uncuff India Episode 9: Civic space and dissent: A pathway to social justice