Is It Time to Stop Filming Strangers in Public?


There is a growing backlash against influencers filming strangers in public without their knowledge for videos on social media.

A recent report by Vox has explored the debate around whether it is ever okay for influencers to film strangers in public and why it makes up so much of the most popular content on social media.

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According to Vox, on social media, filming strangers in public without their knowledge has become “a controversial cottage industry” and some of the most-viewed content on these online platforms essentially involve “nonconsensual voyeurism.”

Instagram has fuelled the ascent of wildly popular voyeuristic accounts like Influencers in the Wild which features stealthily-captured videos of content creators going to extreme lengths to capture the perfect shot — and Subway Creatures which posts photos of passengers on the New York Subway.

Meanwhile, content creators on TikTok and YouTube have used unsuspecting strangers as “unwilling background actors” to gain millions of views and lucrative brand deals — from “random acts of kindness” videos to largely female influencers secretly filming men’s reactions to them in the gym.

These videos often rack up millions of views which is proof that there is “clearly an appetite to watch as strangers are shamed, ridiculed, gawked, or generally caught off-guard, even when we know it isn’t exactly morally sound.”

Vox points out that it would be hard to imagine a normal person consenting to be filmed without their permission and then posted in a viral video on the internet. The growing popularity of this type of content has prompted appeals by publications such as The Guardian, The Verge, and Vice to ban filming strangers like this.


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Even major influencers, like TikToker Joey Swoll and YouTuber Kurtis Conner have decried the rise of content that focuses on filming and humiliating strangers in public.

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But while it would be straightforward if it was made illegal to film random strangers in public under any circumstances, individuals in the U.S. have a right to film in a public place.

According to Vox, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says that the ability to be able to film “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 is particularly important when filming the police or recording an encounter that could become violent, such as the footage of George Floyd’s murder which led to the protests against police brutality in 2020.

However, Vox notes that it is difficult to apply these arguments about First Amendment rights and social justice to influencers who make strangers feel uncomfortable for engagement.

Furthermore, the publication reports that there is also little recourse for individuals who find themselves unknowingly caught on camera in a viral video. Derigan Silver, chair of the University of Denver’s media, film, and journalism department, tells Vox that a successful defamation case requires proving that the material contains a “false statement of fact.” However, a video tends to show events as they happened, even if divorced from vital context.

“We want the ability to record things in public and to document them because it supports very important First Amendment ideals,” Silver tells Vox.

“The flip side of that is not everybody is doing this with good motives.”

The full report by Vox can be found here.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.