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Commentary: Are bystanders who film rather than intervene actually helpful?

Videos circulating on social media of a man in Buangkok wielding a sword showed a frame-by-frame account of what happened. SUSS psychologist Sheryl Chua explores the rise of people recording acts of aggression or abuse.

Commentary: Are bystanders who film rather than intervene actually helpful?

Screengrabs from a video of the incident in Buangkok in March. (Photo: CNA reader)

SINGAPORE: Many of us must have watched the videos of the man swinging a samurai sword at cars and pedestrians near Buangkok Crescent mall on Monday (Mar 14). And just as many would have wondered: What would I have done in that exact situation?

Some friends told me that they would have preferred to keep a distance as they would be unsure how to subdue someone with a dangerous weapon. They would call for help while others intervened.

Others would, if at a safe distance, whip out their phones and record what was happening - to capture potentially helpful evidence.

Indeed, we often come across videos of misbehaviours or altercations uploaded by onlookers on social media. Some go viral, incur public wrath and draw calls for justice to be served. 

But the question then arises: Is it disturbing that our first response is to record the incident instead of helping those in need? Psychologists believe those who record incidents may be no different from those who would actively intervene – both act out of a desire to help. 


Perhaps we should be seeing ourselves as active eyewitnesses, rather than passive bystanders. After all, these videos could contain potentially important evidence which is invaluable to investigators as raw footage of what happened.

Screengrabs of a video that circulated on social media in January, in which a man threatened to run down the security officer outside Red Swastika School.

This is especially when we feel the situation unfolding before us may be too risky to intervene physically. 

Recall the video of the Bentley driver threatening to run down the security officer outside Red Swastika School in January? The video went viral and caught the attention of Education Minister Chan Chun Sing after authorities were tagged. A police report was also lodged by the Union of Security Employees.

Another incident involved a domestic helper caught on video hitting an elderly person at a public park. It was reported that the person filming the incident did not intervene as she was with her young children. Instead, she called the police and informed her husband who managed to locate and confront the helper.  

Other recent incidents include diners filming the altercation between two aggressive customers and the F&B staff. 

The upshot of this behaviour is that filming is seen as a safer way rather than risk confrontation.

But there is a danger we must not overlook: In our zeal to call out misbehaviour on social media, we may encourage online vigilantes who sometimes draw conclusions without context, make discriminatory attacks or even unfairly doxx alleged perpetrators. 

In the Bentley driver incident, netizens wrongly identified Singapore businessman Mr Neo Tiam Ting as the driver. Mr Neo had to make a police report because he was being harassed, with his personal pictures being circulated online.

Once the harm is done, it is hard to reverse the impact that it has on victims.


In today’s digital age, people record almost everything on their phones. But what we do with the footage matters and it is important to look at people’s underlying motives when they are doing so.

Was the purpose of recording to call out behaviours when it was too dangerous to confront the perpetrator directly? Was it to gather evidence to assist in the arrest? Or perhaps to embarrass or shame the person online? Could it even be purely self-serving, to show friends and family that you were at the scene?

Taking photos of someone breaking COVID-19 rules for social media? Experts explain the motivation behind this behaviour. (Illustration: Rafa Estrada)

The preoccupation with capturing troubling situations may magnify what psychologists call the “diffusion of responsibility”. We are less likely to help because our sense of personal responsibility decreases when there are other bystanders. 

And even if those filming feel that they are helping, to the person who requires assistance, filming can be seen as egregious behaviour. Even with the best of intentions, in the eyes of the victims, they are no different from the people who watch passively on the sidelines. 

Surely, in some circumstances – say, if we witness an incident of abuse, harassment or voyeurism - it might sometimes be better to confront the perpetrator than to film in silence. Calling out the perpetrator sends a clear message that such behaviour is not acceptable and could stop the person from causing further harm. 

Certain sensitive situations might also prompt us to be circumspect about sharing video clips on social media, such as where public disclosure of the victim’s identity may cause retaliation, embarrassment or even invite victim-blaming comments. 

Even if we are doubtful of our physical capability to intervene, calling the police or notifying others to assist or escort the victim to a safe place are alternative actions we can take.

Before we instinctively pull out our phones to capture things that catch our attention or take the law into our own hands to subject the offender to public shaming, consider how you would have wanted others to help when you needed them. 

The goal of helping is to deescalate the harm by intervening safely and effectively.

Is something broken in Singapore society? Listen to CNA's Heart of the Matter break down youths' social media habits and how they affect their mental health.


Underlying all of this is the fundamental question of whether we should intervene when we see something troubling happening. Theories of bystander behaviour have found that we go through a few stages in our minds before we act. 

Our decision depends on whether it is clear that the situation is an emergency and help is needed. For example, seeing an elderly woman slip makes us more likely to go forward to help her up because it is obvious she needs our assistance. 

Indeed, Mr Lim Jun Yi, the polytechnic student who rushed to the aid of Mr Kumarapeli Arachchige Amila Chinthana, the victim of the sword attack, said: “The only thing that came to mind is that I want to help, I want to make sure that he (Mr Chinthana) doesn't get injured any further.”

A recent study conducted using unobtrusive public surveillance cameras from three cities found that bystanders were 19 times more likely to intervene in the presence of danger than in the absence of danger. People are more likely to intervene when they perceive an urgency to help. 

Based on the rational choice theory, we weigh our options and make the choice that serves us best. 

We consider the costs of helping such as harm to our safety, time, effort, embarrassment and even stigma of being associated with the victim. For example, we might not do anything for fear that we are misinterpreting the situation which could cause embarrassment or be called out for being nosy. 

A meta-analysis conducted on bystander intervention found that people are less likely to help when they perceived that there are high physical costs of helping. If we assess that we might get hurt while trying to interfere with an altercation, we are less likely to help.

That said, we also consider who we help. We tend to feel a sense of duty and obligation to help vulnerable people even if the cost of helping is high. This was what crossed Mr Chinthana’s mind when he pinned his attacker on the ground – that other more vulnerable people in the area could have been harmed.

All of these reactions are normal and perfectly human. It is hard to say how any of us would react in an unexpected situation. But in today’s context, our smartphones may be able to help in ways that we physically may not be able to – but only if they are used judiciously.

Dr Sheryl Chua is a psychologist and a lecturer with the Public Safety and Security Programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

Source: CNA/geh


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