Hidden camera pranks: “Making laugh” at people’s dignity
Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim
In February 2022, the Syrian YouTuber Youssef Kabani streamed a video recording of him walking around the streets of Damascus with bodyguards at his side, carrying money in his hand, asking people about their conditions, and whoever complains of his poverty receives little money from the YouTuber’s bodyguards, on camera.
The recording sparked a huge wave of anger and opened the door to criticism that it was “a provocateur who takes advantage of people’s pain and insults the dignity of the Syrians.”
After an outrage on social media, Kabani apologized for the recording, indicating that his idea was wrong, denying the news of his arrest in Syria after widespread demands for that and news of his arrest.
On the pretext of making people laugh, a secret camera monitors, from more than one angle, the victims’ reactions to pranks that contain ridicule, mockery, intimidation, verbal harassment, abuse, exploitation of need, slander, and beating.
Like what Kabani did, pranks are active in Syria with the onset of the Ramadan season and spread on social media platforms more than on television screens.
It manipulates people’s emotions and provokes them with prior planning and with practices that some of them do not bear respect for people’s dignity or public taste.
Such “pranks” garner thousands of views and are published after the approval of the “victims,” mixing their feelings of shock and joy at getting rid of an unexpected dilemma, hoping to get out of it with the least damage, after a “non-genuine” smile that does not carry satisfaction.
Victimized on camera
In a loud voice in the street, under the pretext that he is talking on the phone, a young man calls out to a passer-by girl more than once, gradually talking to her using phrases amounting to insults, looking for either an angry reaction from her or for the girl to attack him with her hand, so the scene ends as a hidden camera prank.
A customer in a barber shop is assaulted (beaten by hand), and water is sprayed on his face by another person under the pretext of teaching a second person the principles of the profession, while in the café, pictures of one of the customers are shown on the TV screen as being wanted and a fugitive from justice.
There are many “pranks” in which a girl breaks into a table where a young man and a girl are seated, disturbing the atmosphere and creating problems that undermine trust between them. This “prank” extends to the street and public places so that the girl enters family gatherings as the daughter or wife of the man (The prank victim).
In vegetable stores and restaurants, pranks are activated by presenting offers on a commodity or meal through banners hanging on the façade, and when the customer arrives, he is surprised by the small quantity and size, and the seller may give him an empty basket, ignoring the tired and angry expressions of the customers’ faces, which the offer or the need may have prompted them to go to that place. The viewer can sense the distress in the victims’ chests and feel sympathy for them.
In another prank, features of fear and shock overwhelm a young man (victim) when he is surprised that the corpse that he was asked to transport in his car is moving inside the shroud and that its owner is still alive, so the scene ends as a hidden camera.
Another prank, too, a young man goes towards a group of children (over ten years old) under the pretext that he is looking for a specific targeted person, talking on the phone with another person, deceiving them that he has a weapon, but it is a piece of cucumber or an eggplant. Until the prank is discovered, the young man causes a state of panic and drives children to run away or beat him.
Lilas Dakhlallah, a social media expert and researcher, told Enab Baladi that this type of “pranks” entrenches a culture of bullying and violence and threatens the mental health of adults and children, as well as the moral health of society, leading to a moral collapse.
Dakhlallah believes that pranks are based on violating people’s privacy and exploiting their weakness or need, as it hurts their dignity and makes them vulnerable in the eyes of society, and opens the door to their exploitation by other groups in society.
The pranks cause great psychological and societal problems and widen the gap between the individual and society, according to the expert.
She added that spreading a culture of mockery and indifference to people’s privacy is a sign of moral collapse, especially as societies grow and develop by respecting people and their moral values.
If the pranks talk about people’s economic or social status, the people (victims) may think that it raises their voice or meets some of their needs, which prompts them to accept it, according to Dakhlallah.
Hidden camera pranks have always been the subject of widespread controversy in Syria and the Arab world as a whole, some of which have sparked widespread criticism, especially those that carry justifications that their aim is to deliver a message to society or to shed light on some wrong practices in it.
The social media expert considered that the justification of some pranks as carrying a message or any objective whatsoever does not justify the use of methods and ways that are not in line with the customs and culture of society, and this justification is inconsistent with human and professional ethics as well.
Dakhlallah pointed out that there are professional and media rules to prepare a report or a meeting with people to talk about their problems and stories of their own free will and in a way that does not diminish their respect and sheds light on the problem and the solution within rules that respect the person, the viewer, and the platform that presents this type of content.
Panic to harvest views, Non-purposeful camera
Pranks have high viewership rates in general, and after monitoring by Enab Baladi of digital platforms that stream pranks, recordings that frighten and surprise people get higher views than others.
Dakhlallah said that some pranks are linked to the element of intimidation to subjugate the victim and to the element of surprise to suspense the viewer.
Pranks carry high risks, including that the viewer becomes used to enjoying watching another person being intimidated or insulted, and the danger lies in the fact that a person gets used to seeing these images, so they become natural for him, the researcher says.
She adds that hidden camera programs are a kind of exploitation to obtain high views by destroying a personality in front of the general public, opening a wound, or raising a problem in an immoral way and leaving it.
Dakhlallah pointed out that there are many hidden camera programs, which were broadcast by Western TV stations and YouTube channels, showing, for example, how a child deals with certain situations or how a person deals with a specific situation, and most of these episodes talk about spontaneous matters so that the viewer laughs but learn from the mistakes of others.
The researcher stated that these hidden camera programs worked within very high ethical and societal controls and were used as a tool for correcting and building, not demolishing and dismantling.
Dakhlallah called for stopping programs that mock and interfere with people’s privacy in order for society to become more solid, as people’s need and weakness is not a place for ridicule or commercial material to gain views.
A draft law is not enough
There is no law or control for hidden camera pranks in Syria, despite their prominence over the past years, with the proliferation of YouTubers, influencers, and platforms that provide this content on social media.
The absence of controls is not limited to pranks, but it exceeds it to similar content that is not devoid of insulting and offending people.
In Syria, there is a draft law to combat information crime, which includes prison sentences and financial fines for all offense or infringement that is published on the Internet, whether through licensed media outlets, websites, or through social media.
In December 2021, the Syrian Ministry of Communications proposed a draft amendment to Law “Combating Information Crime” No. 17 of 2012 for discussion before the People’s Assembly, and it was amended and reformulated in two articles related to “undermining the prestige of the state” and “undermining the prestige of the employee.”
Ghada Ibrahim, Rapporteur of the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee in the Syrian People’s Assembly, said during the approval of the amendment of the two articles that insulting the state is more severe than insulting people.
The two crimes and their penalties must be separated as the punishment in the event that the abuse of a state employee in his official capacity is more severe than the abuse of him in his personal capacity, as she said.
Whoever slanders a person in a non-public manner through an electronic means on the Internet network shall be punished by imprisonment from one month to six months and a fine of up to 200,000 Syrian pounds. The penalty is increased to imprisonment from four months to a year and a fine of up to 500,000 Syrian pounds if the offense is committed publicly.
Whoever commits defamation or contempt of a person, in a non-public manner, by electronic means, shall be punished by imprisonment from one to three months and a fine of up to 200,000 pounds, and the penalty is increased to imprisonment from two to six months and a fine of 500,000 pounds, if the defamation or contempt is committed publicly.
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