If you’re a person on Earth who uses the internet, you may have already encountered amateur “social experiments”. That is, YouTubers, online comedians and passingly tech-literate pranksters who aim to explore and expose — often via use of hidden cameras — the perceived prejudice and general conceited wretchedness of terrible Westerners.
Some of these videos are simply banal and innocently platitudinous. Some have potential but are undercooked. The most insidious are superficially entertaining gotcha journalism, enacted by the sanctimoniously “progressive” with the express intention of shocking us into (maybe thinking about possibly) doing something about all this depravity.
Last week, our hair-trigger sensibilities were rent asunder by yet another social experiment video, latterly published to news.com.au under the self-explanatory headline “Video of ‘drunk’ girl in public shows men trying to get her to go home with them when she asks for help”. It is shallow, exploitative and, most probably, fake. Multiple news sites are reporting the would-be rapists were actors, and the entire thing staged.
These videos may appear on a very 21st-century medium, but they are steeped in 20th-century tabloid TV news. Jill Singer, RMIT journalism lecturer and former host of Seven’s Today Tonight in the mid-1990s, says they are the next step in “gotcha” journalism.
“Journalists have often gone out to manufacture stories, and these [social experiments] are no different,” Singer explained. “They are entirely skewed to the outcome [the producers] want — highly manipulative and self-serving”.
Old-timey gotcha journalism is marked by the absence of a “free and fair exchange of ideas”, with its practitioners using a candid camera as a stand-in for empirical rigour. As Singer explains, both tabloid press and these newer social experiments eschew fair practice in favour of “anecdotal, highly weighted personal experiences” that can only really tell us about “what happened to that particular person on that particular day”. Singer draws her own comparison here to the methodology of the interminably viral street-harassment-in-New-York video, which, when replicated in New Zealand, produced vastly different results.
With few exceptions, YouTube social experiments are just “sloppy kids’ stunts … They think they’re being incisive and bringing new knowledge and insight into things, but they’re not. They’re just fucking attention-seeking punks,” Singer said.
The Huffington Post recently spruiked an apparently “real” social experiment under the title “This Bullying Social Experiment is Incredibly Eye-Opening”, wherein the hosts — a pair of aspirant Derryn Hinchs — stage an act of bullying in front of bystanders to see who will/won’t intervene. “Set-ups” and “entrapment” are two terms that Singer uses repeatedly to describe gotcha journalism, and it takes no great semantic leap to see these two at play here.
For those entrapped bystanders who choose not to intervene in the bullying, the hosts duly lash them with a righteous tut-tutting. This is telling, as the truly dab hands of the gutter press know to “act like they already know the right way people are meant to behave. They say ‘you’re meant to behave like this’, and if you don’t, according to their criteria, then there’s something wrong with you,” Singer said. Ironically, “it’s a form of bullying in itself”.
Something more eye-opening than the “revelation” that the instinct for self-preservation is strong is that sentient adults think positive punishment via public humiliation might be the best way to drive a culture shift. (Just ask Adria Richards how well that turns out.) The experiment isn’t so much empowering or educational as it is voyeuristic shaming.
Just last week, federal Labor MP Kate Ellis’ Facebook page directed me to a YouTube social experiment supposedly proving that hardly anyone really wants to help victims of domestic violence. The comments were flooded with predictably righteous indignation.
That these “attention-seeking punks” have little insight to offer is clear. For example, relatively well-off individuals brazenly stealing from the homeless is obviously reprehensible, but also very rare. What’s not all that rare is actually becoming homeless — yet conspicuously absent in any of these videos is even an oblique reference to the underlying causes of social tragedies, like homelessness or bullying, and workable long-term solutions.
CEO of Homelessness Australia Glenda Stevens is ambivalent toward the social experiments involving homeless people — and there are many. “The videos vary from those highlighting the devastating effects homelessness has on people to those that are quite tasteless,” Stevens said. Even the more compassionate videos, however, tend to present a “distorted view of homelessness” that “perpetuates myths” about homeless people. One such myth is that homeless people are predominantly middle-aged men sleeping rough. In truth, people sleeping rough (on the street, in parks, etc) account for just 6% of people experiencing homelessness. Moreover, as Stevens points out, “the main cause of homelessness in Australia is domestic violence”. Around 25% of people experiencing homelessness are women and children fleeing domestic violence. But it’s difficult to film all that on a GoPro.
There are, of course, many things the internet wunderkinds and amatuer auteurs do better than their professional counterparts in the “real world”, like raising money for grand epicurean achievements, or properly reminding HBO exactly what we think of its intellectual property rights. Unfortunately, didactic re-education of the casually immoral and callous is not the truest arrow in the online community’s user-generated quiver — and neither is empirical research.