Zodiac Sign · May 20, 2024

The experience of discovering that he was being secretly filmed by a stranger unfolded for Mitchell Clark in a rather unexpected manner. While working a shift at his Atlanta Target, he noticed someone placing a phone nearby. "I thought it was for some silly prank channel," he recalls. It wasn't until a young woman bent over directly in front of him, with her dress revealing her entire bare bottom, that he grasped what was happening. The resulting video captured his shock — his eyes widened, and his hands instinctively reached for his chest in disbelief. Later, the video found its way onto the Instagram account of the OnlyFans model involved.

"It made me appear like a creep," he confides. The video represented an extreme instance of a trend where women clandestinely record men's reactions to them, frequently in the gym or public settings, either to shame the men for their behavior or to underscore the influence of their own attractiveness — in Clark's situation, arguably both. However, this incident sparked outrage: Following Clark's video detailing his discomfort, other accounts shared and reacted to it, underscoring how public filming practices had spiraled out of control.

It has been fifteen years since the advent of social media enabled anyone's camera phone video to potentially go viral. However, it's TikTok, a platform where attaining overnight fame is more attainable than ever, that has transformed filming strangers in public into a contentious cottage industry. While influencers on platforms like Vine, YouTube, and Instagram have long utilized passersby as unwitting extras to boost their popularity, TikTok has empowered those individuals to share their perspectives and have their voices heard. This is partly facilitated by editing tools such as stitching or dueting, and also because one doesn't necessarily need a large following to achieve virality on the app. Viewers are engaged in witnessing all facets of the unfolding drama.

Thanks to these reactions and the efforts of several watchdog accounts, a significant backlash against public filming has been building. Numerous outlets, including the Guardian, The Verge, and Vice, have urged people to stop filming strangers, while BuzzFeed coined the disturbing genre with an equally unsettling term: "panopticontent." If you were to ask just about anyone whether they'd want to be filmed without their consent and have it posted online, it's hard to imagine a regular person saying yes.

Despite this awareness, such videos continue to amass millions of views, forcing us to confront the reality that in 2024, some of the most popular content on social media essentially constitutes non-consensual voyeurism. There's evidently a desire to watch as strangers are shamed, ridiculed, stared at, or generally caught off guard, even though we understand it's not morally justifiable. A precursor to this phenomenon emerged in 2009 with the blog People of Walmart, which mocked customers for wearing embarrassing attire (often relying on classist, fatphobic, and transphobic stereotypes). Instagram further fueled the proliferation of such accounts, like Subway Creatures, boasting nearly 3 million followers, which curates images of peculiar individuals and situations on the New York City subway; Passenger Shaming, featuring videos of in-flight meltdowns and other airport misbehavior; or Influencers in the Wild, with over 5 million followers, encouraging viewers to mock those who film themselves in public. The website even entices submissions by promising, "Your clip could be seen by millions!" The irony that it's arguably worse to surreptitiously photograph someone photographing themselves takes a backseat to the primary objective: driving engagement by laughing at individuals who are unaware they're being filmed.

Even content that purports to be wholesome has fallen prey to the same dilemma. In 2018, an influencer shared an Instagram Story detailing a potential romance unfolding between two individuals seated in front of her on a plane. However, she later had to issue an apology when the woman involved felt her privacy had been compromised. The "Plane Bae" story quickly went viral before anyone stopped to consider whether what they were witnessing was ethically sound.

It would certainly simplify matters if there were a collective agreement that filming random strangers in public, under any circumstances, was never acceptable. However, social questions, particularly those intersecting with the continually evolving norms of our online existence, are rarely this straightforward. In reality, you do have the legal right to film in public spaces. As the ACLU notes, this ability "creates an independent record of what took place in a particular incident, one that is free from accusations of bias, lying, or faulty memory."

This becomes particularly significant when filming law enforcement or capturing an encounter that has the potential to turn violent. For instance, the video documenting the murder of George Floyd played a pivotal role in igniting the wave of protests against police brutality during the summer of 2020. Additionally, camera phone recordings showcasing instances of racism and harassment, especially during and following the lockdown period, have prompted crucial discussions about acceptable behavior during an exceptionally challenging time.

The applicability of arguments about First Amendment rights and social justice to individuals who make strangers uncomfortable for engagement on TikTok depends on perspective. While some may claim they're merely trying to "spread love" or express surprise at their content going viral, they often avoid grappling with more challenging questions. It's conceivable, for example, that someone may have genuine concerns about their digital privacy for more serious reasons, such as evading a stalker. Consider the case of a woman who was filmed being approached for a high-five by a dancer in Times Square and subsequently began crying. She faced ridicule for her reaction and was accused of racism because the dancer was Black. However, her sister later explained in a video that she is autistic and suffers from contamination OCD, hence her discomfort with physical contact. Similarly, another woman was wrongly vilified for allegedly carrying monkeypox on the subway after someone made a TikTok video of her. In reality, the bumps on her skin were caused by a genetic condition.

There's minimal legal recourse available for individuals who discover themselves unknowingly captured on camera. According to Derigan Silver, chair of the University of Denver’s media, film, and journalism department, a successful defamation case necessitates demonstrating that the material includes a "false statement of fact." However, a video typically presents events as they occurred, even if divorced from crucial context.

Clark is hopeful of enlisting the assistance of a lawyer to have the original video removed, but he acknowledges that this is probably the extent of what can be achieved. "It's unfortunate that our legal system lags behind in addressing this issue," he remarks concerning the proliferation of content creators who exploit strangers as background props. "But it's a genuine problem, and it's worsening," he adds.

The notion that privacy laws should adapt to address situations like Clark's presents potential dangers. "We value the ability to record events in public and document them because it upholds crucial First Amendment principles," explains Silver. "However, not everyone engages in this practice with honorable intentions." Silver suggests that where the law could make strides is by distinguishing between newsworthy and non-newsworthy events — for instance, recording an encounter with law enforcement versus filming an anonymous Target employee — and making it more challenging to prosecute individuals who document matters of public significance. In a paper on what she termed "forced faming," British intellectual property law scholar Hayleigh Bosher also underscores how the legal system must grapple with the proliferation of deepfake content, which generates realistic-seeming content using unwilling individuals' likenesses.

While no law can fully eradicate the issue of individuals behaving poorly on social media, there exist alternative avenues to influence online behavior. "There's the law, there's technology, there are cultural norms, and there's the market," elaborates Silver. "We can apply pressure on platforms and advocate for them to cease monetizing these accounts. Alternatively, they could develop technology that makes it harder to upload content that infringes upon someone's privacy. Another approach is for individuals online to collectively decide, 'I'm going to stop consuming this type of content.'"

At present, it's the cultural norms that are experiencing the most rapid change. This period has seen the emergence of numerous accounts dedicated to denouncing public filming, such as Joey Swoll, who boasts 7.7 million TikTok followers (his account was one of those that highlighted Clark's situation). Additionally, YouTubers like Kurtis Conner have produced videos advocating for an end to filming strangers.

Indeed, there is an element of hypocrisy at play in these dynamics. While Swoll's account ostensibly aims to uphold a particular ideal of gym culture, the majority of his content is focused on shaming the behavior of (often) women — even influencers who are innocuously filming themselves without involving anyone else. While some instances he calls out are objectively egregious, such as the woman who pretended to take a video of herself to mock the man exercising behind her, others may be more cringeworthy than harmful, like the girl who performed a TikTok dance in front of someone using a bench press.

Swoll also appears particularly focused on objecting to women who assert that certain men at gyms make them feel uncomfortable, and subsequently film the alleged "creep." These examples often lack clear-cut evidence of harassment or creepy behavior from the videos alone. However, Swoll rarely entertains any inquiry or curiosity regarding what might have transpired off-camera. Instead, he has positioned himself as the primary vigilante of the digital realm, publicly shaming clandestine gym recorders by drawing more attention to them — ironically, adopting the same tactic employed by the women against the "creeps" they film. Moreover, the fact that both Swoll and Influencers in the Wild typically have millions more followers than the individuals they critique adds another dimension to the situation: When does calling out those who film strangers result in inadvertently subjecting bystanders, who never intended to be thrust into the public eye, to a deluge of attention?

The demand for voyeuristic content — whether it involves watching someone unknowingly filmed or witnessing someone confront a stranger for filming — ensures that accounts engaging in such content have a higher likelihood of going viral and securing lucrative brand partnerships. For example, Influencers in the Wild has its own merchandise and board game, while Joey Swoll frequently promotes his brand of low-calorie sauces. The awareness that there's a high demand for "panopticontent" motivates creators to produce more of it, often utilizing TikTok's stitch or duet feature to capitalize on trending topics or videos, regardless of whether they recognize the ethical ambiguity involved.

When faced with questions like, "Is it worth it to pull out my phone right now?" or "Am I acting inappropriately if I film someone without their knowledge?" Silver suggests applying the golden rule. While we are constantly being recorded — by security cameras, our phones which track our location and online activity, and other people's cameras — ultimately, we decide whether or not to share our own videos online. While platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram could theoretically intervene to demonetize accounts profiting from non-consensual voyeurism, this scenario seems almost impossible to enforce. Consequently, it falls upon audiences to shift cultural norms surrounding what constitutes acceptable behavior online. However, given the astonishing popularity of these videos, this prospect appears unlikely for the time being.

Following the incident at Target, Clark's initial concern was ensuring that it wouldn't happen to anyone else. "Working in retail, you become accustomed to being harassed. I'm no longer seen as a person; I'm seen as an object," he shares. Increasingly, this dehumanization is how individuals on social media perceive each other: as non-playable characters (NPCs), disposable, mere background actors devoid of their own desires or interests. While TikTok has provided Clark with a platform to publicly respond and garner support from thousands of people, it's also partially responsible for perpetuating the issue. "There's a lack of decency, and I believe it may stem from the allure of becoming famous and going viral. Some people believe the ends justify the means, but they certainly do not," Clark concludes.

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