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Phone cameras are spurring temper tantrums in public

Perpetrators performing for the cameras is a well-documented phenomenon and is termed the "online disinhibition effect", wherein going online seems to lower people’s inhibitions.

August 28, 2022 / 04:43 PM IST
The promise of overnight fame, however fleeting, through the online media, can bring out the worst in people. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)

The promise of overnight fame, however fleeting, through the online media, can bring out the worst in people. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)

In Noida recently, a woman was arrested and remanded to custody for abusing and manhandling a security guard merely because he delayed opening the gates of her apartment complex by a few minutes. Earlier, in the same vicinity, a BJP leader lost his cool, and the support of his party, after a resident of the condominium where he lived, objected to some illegal construction he was doing.

In both cases the underlying cause of the dispute was trivial and could have easily been handled without escalating it to such dire levels. But somehow the presence of phone cameras that were openly recording the proceedings, instead of inhibiting the perpetrators, seemed to have spurred them on to even more violent speech and actions. It is a common enough occurrence nowadays. Criminals seen lynching a human being or others parading a helpless woman around a block or even a mob beating up policemen - the promise of overnight fame, however fleeting, through the online media, brings out the worst in people.

In April 2017, dairy farmer Pehlu Khan was dragged out of the truck in which he was transporting cattle bought from a fair and brutally beaten up by a mob of cow vigilantes on the Jaipur-Delhi highway. The 55-year-old died in hospital. Three of those accused of the crime were underage men. Eventually all the suspects were freed by the courts citing lack of evidence. The proceedings were captured on camera, though eventually they were not admissible in court.

And it isn’t just in India. This July a horrific video on YouTube showed a Nigerian street vendor being beaten to death by an irate customer in an Italian beach town, even as bystanders filmed the event.

Lynching, of course, isn’t a new crime. For generations of African Americans growing up through the last two centuries, lynching was a constant threat. Photographs of mobs of screaming white men stringing a black man up a tree are common enough. Lynching, then, as now, was an act meant to instill fear. The Islamic State circulated videos of men and women being beheaded publicly during its terror reign between 2014 and 2019.

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The difference is in how such acts lend themselves to exhibitionism, with perpetrators performing for the cameras.

The phenomenon is well-documented and is termed the "online disinhibition effect" wherein going online seems to lower people’s inhibitions. It can take the form of “toxic” or “benign" disinhibition. A film actor opening up about her struggles with depression is benign to the extent that it does no harm though sometimes it does open the person to further charges that she's doing it to gain sympathy ahead of a film’s release. There is also the good that comes off it by drawing attention to the issue and perhaps reassuring other silent victims that they aren’t alone in their suffering. Toxic is what we are witnessing around us all the time.

Nor are these instances of aberrant behaviour triggered by unexpected events. The former army general frothing and fuming at his mouth while holding forth on the apparent cowardice of people, the TV anchor thundering and threatening guests, the politician declaring himself the only patriot in town while demanding answers from opponents, are all symbols of what happens when a camera is thrust in some people’s face with the prospect of millions watching.

In years of print journalism there have rarely been times when the subject of a difficult interview or even a politician being grilled, has ever got so visibly angry. Even in the face of tough questions, often bordering on the provocative, most respondents keep their temper largely in check.

The disinhibition in front of a camera also contradicts definitive findings from years of research which shows that the presence of CCTVs lowers crime like petty theft and snatching in neighborhoods. Even in football, there is much less unruly behaviour in stadiums that installed CCTV when compared to matches when cameras were not yet in use.

What explains this contradiction? Could it be the fact that the CCTV footage in such cases will only be visible to the police and will most certainly lead to some form of punishment.
Sundeep Khanna is a senior journalist. Views are personal.
first published: Aug 28, 2022 07:12 am
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