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The hidden power of spectators: How social media upended the bystander effect

REUTERS/USA Today Sports/Matthew Emmons
It took people on social media calling out Ray Rice for the NFL to take notice.

I didn’t want my family to know I was assaulted. But I can’t stay silent since seeing Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancé unconscious, Adrian Peterson’s battered son and reports of “hundreds” more.

This is about power. Spectator Power, exactly the opposite of the Bystander Effect.

When people spread those images through social media, Radisson Hotels pulled its Vikings sponsorship and Anheuser-Busch threatened to sideline its NFL support. Roger Goodell began to get it.

I wish two of my witnesses had. They’d urged me to file a police report when I hesitated, not wanting my children or my parents to know. Besides, I knew justice in gender assaults is rare. Prosecuting my offender might stop him, but not increases in assaults.

My offender is a cultural figure. When he texted me an article featuring his good-guy persona, I saw an opportunity. Knowing media could catalyze a discussion, I offered that he prove it and join me for a public effort. He didn’t bite.

Moved to action

But something similar happened recently when “spectators” catalyzed a by-proxy blitz. Rejecting crimes of power played in sound bites, they proved caring people get cracking with public action. Like ad-hoc Super Bowl sponsors seeing daylight (on the people’s “even-playing field” Internet), they powered through NFL’s weak defense.

Football isn’t the only foe. It’s just an example of how gender violence is carried and spreads like a social contagion.

Police and programs aren’t enough of a cure. Heck, if the U.S. military can’t kill gender assault, who can?

We can, Team America. 

When an insurgence of advocates took arms against sex assaults, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, boosted their artillery. Riddling colleagues with victims’ statements, recruiting Republicans, she got those soldiers marching. Soon the Pentagon cited a 50 percent increase in reports as proof transparent that new policies work. Now they’re challenging NFL peers to join ranks.

That’s a big gain. But we’re still in the pre-season.  

We need to do the right thing

We’ve got to stop being fair-weather citizens. The franchise is our families and friends. We need do the right thing, even when no one’s watching. Because our opponent is us. 

We have to stop our bad habit of following the crowd that says these are personal problems. That we haven’t the right position, training or equipment.

  • Know how to communicate? You’re well trained.
  • Have a heart and any working combination of: eyes, ears, mouth? That’s equipment.
  • Cell phone? You can capture replays.
  • Internet access? That’s the stadium.

Will there be some bruises? Yes, but the most painful will come from the no shows. I know from personal experience.

When police asked to interview my four witnesses, all immediately agreed. Two, both women, hustled to make statements. But both men wimped out.

Seemingly decent, they talked a good game; “I’ll do anything.” Until, “Sorry. Been really busy.” Then devolving, “Do you really think anyone is going to believe that?” Even mocking, “What did you expect?”

I reminded them, “This is for all the others this and other men will prey on. Women and girls like your daughter, even boys.” And reasoned, “Good guys like your son are at risk for being (seen) as bad guys if men like you don’t speak up.”  

“It’s too stressful,” one said, perhaps afraid to break some bystander effect law.

Their behaviors were as damaging as my offender’s assault — and cost taxpayers thousands. They can’t be prosecuted for living down to social norms. But they can be called out, just as many called out NFL leaders for essentially the same.
I used what I had to break a silence and shed light on a hidden reality. Emailing their texts to local officials, CC-ing both men.

My investigator said he understood, but I felt like I fumbled by dropping the case. Still, moving on seemed more productive: Raising my kids. Promising myself I’d invest everything into my start-up WetheP, so real people could contribute cultural solutions.

Then I saw images of Janay Rice and Peterson’s son. When spectators, players and sponsors put themselves into play, proving interpersonal violence is an intercultural problem.  

I wanted to cheer. This was “real people” power.

We’ve got what it takes to beat gender and domestic violence, together. 

If you care, it’s time to prove it.

Andrea Morisette Grazzini is the founder & CEO of WetheP, Inc.


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