The joke seemed harmless, until a few days later when news came that the nurse
who answered the call, Jacintha Saldanha, was dead, an apparent suicide.
This tragic turn will undoubtedly trigger debate about practical joking in
the digital age, when everything is magnified by the potential for viral distribution.
The practical joking itself – usually on video – has intensified
in both volume and crudeness. This is in part a result of desensitizing among
viewers, for whom the barrage of clips becomes so overwhelming that it’s
easy to lose track of the inherent risks involved. People in flash videos are
sometimes thought of almost as avatars or digital creations, rather than actual
human beings, whose feelings and health are always potentially in jeopardy.
The facts are still not fully clear in the case of the nurse’s death,
but it seems that once again the medium is more to blame than the message. A
phone prank confined to those directly involved in the call is not likely to
cause much stress. Even a radio broadcast heard only in Australia would not seem
too damaging for a “victim” in Britain. But a viral prank that flashes
around the globe on radio, TV, the Internet and newspapers can make even a silly
joke seem to carry the weight of the world.
The very morning that the news came from London, NBC’s “Today” show
was replaying for the umpteenth time a clip from Brazil in which people in an
elevator were frightened by the unexpected appearance of a ghostly figure – actually
a prankster who entered through a secret door. The video, which has established
a record for views worldwide, has no shred of comedic content beyond the screams,
tears and shocked expressions of those caught unawares. If ever a prank posed
health risks for its victims, this would seem to be it. But the NBC hosts hooted
In my view, the Australian D.J.’s did nothing wrong other than attempt
a sophomoric gag that had an awful, but unpredictable, consequence. Yet everything
is magnified and made permanent in the digital environment.
Pranksters must always be accountable for their actions, but in the digital
age the burden of responsibility also lies with those who use the echo chamber
to amplify things to the point of distortion and stress. Unless we’re careful,
the joke is on us.
© Peter Funt. This column originally appeared in
The New York Times.