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Not So Innocent Bystanders: Revisiting Bystander Liability in The Age of Social Media

Helene Wheeler, SJD candidate, Faculty of Law, University of Toronto

Published April 19, 2018 by Technologies of Justice.

On January 26, 2018, Helene Wheeler presented a talk entitled Not So Innocent Bystanders: Revisiting Bystander Liability in the Age of Social Media during the Technologies of Justice Conference session on social media, democracy, communication and governmentality. The conference took place at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.



Wheeler talks about how social media has created a new kind of bystander: the person who records an event instead of helping in an emergency. She emphasizes the new aspects of failure to assist and how posting to social media and not calling authorities has become a truly modern problem. She brings up the lack of Canadian law in this type of situation and asks if we are equipped to deal with situations like the August 2017 incident where Jamel Dunn, a disabled man, drowned as a group of teenagers watched and mocked him. She also brings up the occurrence of non-consensual image-posting and insensitive posting of emergency images on social media, and how this breaks our right to privacy in many senses of the word.
Helene frames the current criminal code in terms of possible improvements and how punishing bystanders could be the solution. She invokes the idea of incentivizing not doing anything in an emergency situation and instead, posting 'shocking' content in social media to garner attention. She critically rethinks the duty to assist in Ontario, comparing it to other places in North America and globally. She concludes by asking, “Why not punish bystanders?”