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Is It Ethical to Film Strangers in Public?


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Is It Ethical to Film Strangers in Public?

Some of the most popular videos on TikTok this year saw content creators approaching strangers on the street. They asked them about their favorite music or style choices, among other things. Creators plan a few of these videos, but many subjects they approach are random people living their lives. There are videos that film people, almost always without consent, for the viewers to scrutinize every detail of their outfits, behaviour and lifestyle.

Another genre of videos in a similar fashion are accounts that film unsuspecting people from rooftops. The intention is to show the beauty in the simplicity of everyday human life. But it often feels like an unnecessary intrusion of privacy for the sake of content.

In India and most countries, in a private setting, recording someone without their knowledge is of course illegal. It is lawful to record someone without their consent in a public place if they are visible and audible. But does that make it ethical?

In this day and age, going viral is very easy. And with virality, comes scrutiny and assumptions from the audience. In a similar trend, a few influencers have earned their popularity by filming themselves committing “random” acts of kindness.

TikTok creator Harrison Pawluk in one such video approached a woman named Maree in a public shopping center. He asked her to hold a bouquet of flowers while he put on a jacket. Before Maree could return the bouquet, Pawluk wished her a good day and walked away. Her shocked reaction was caught on camera. The video attracted more than 59m views and 11m likes, along with largely supportive comments.

Users were happy to see an old woman receiving flowers and made assumptions that this act made her day. But Maree told ABC Radio Melbourne that she felt dehumanized. She said, “these artificial things are not random acts of kindness”. She added, “He interrupted my quiet time, filmed and uploaded a video without my consent, turning it into something it wasn’t … I feel he is making quite a lot of money through it.”

She said she had asked whether she was being filmed, and was told “no”. She also said she offered the flowers back as she didn’t want to carry them home on the tram. People’s reaction to the video implied that any older woman should be thrilled to receive attention. After media reports described her as an “elderly woman” with a “heartbreaking tale,” Maree said she felt “like clickbait”.

In November, Luke Erwin, who has 899,000 TikTok followers, posted a video that showed him wearing an arm sling and asking strangers to help him open a water bottle. The first people he approached in the video were an older couple, who walked away without helping. A caption read, “Don’t be the person that doesn’t help.”

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Commenters under the video criticized the couple in the video, which has more than 2.6 million views. But many commentators took the criticism too far and spewed hateful comments towards a pair of strangers they know nothing about. The “acts of kindness” TikTok genre is immensely popular, and videos under the hashtag have millions of views. But many of the subjects say they did not consent to be in these videos.

And this bizarre approach existed well before TikTok. Take Hot Dudes Reading, an Instagram account with over 1M followers for example. The premise is pretty simple. The account showcases attractive men who are reading in public with wildly fetishizing captions. Consent in these photos is non-existent. Created in 2015, the creators behind this account have even published a book, and are still going strong.

And while the practice is creepy and unnerving at best, it is a safety hazard at its worst. People who unknowingly end up in these videos may fall into danger if they’re trying to stay away from any estranged exes, family members or anyone who threatens their safety.

So, while it is completely legal for you to film anything you like in public, would you still agree if the camera turned on you?

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