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Black eye or smokey eye? Social media and our misinterpretation of violence

By Izzy Stein, Staff Writer

On March 20 it was reported by the NYPD that a 33-year-old woman was punched in the face by a stranger after walking through Union Square at 4:30 p.m. in New York City (NYC). Since then, there have been numerous reports of unprovoked attacks involving women being punched in broad daylight across the city. 

  Observers across social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram have taken a particular interest in the attacks sharing their personal experiences, opinions, and self-defense tips as many decide to take matters into their own hands. 

  It is no secret that NYC has always had a tumultuous relationship with crime, but could the vast online publicization of these attacks lead to a glamorization of violence that fails to project the true nature of crime across the city?

  Freshman psychology major Lola Gitlin is a native New Yorker and has walked the streets of Manhattan many times. She commented on her personal experiences with safety in a city renowned for danger.

  “Although I predominantly go to the city with groups of friends, I do think I could go by myself,” she said. “I know not to engage with people that I shouldn’t…it is a little bit nerve-wracking being a woman alone in the city but I do think it is a safe place if you are smart with where you go.”

  After reports of the initial incident in Union Square, 23-year-old influencer Halley Kate Mcgookin took to TikTok on March 25 to share a similar incident where she had been punched in the face whilst walking through the streets of Chelsea. The video, which holds over 5.2 million likes and pictures a tearful Mcgookin, has sparked a conversation from women who had shared similar experiences.

These stories, connected predominantly under the hashtag “PunchTok,” describe accounts of young women being sucker-punched throughout Manhattan at random. Many of the responses reflected the information shared in the videos, focusing on attacks involving isolated women during the daytime. 

  But the responses weren’t entirely autobiographical, with many choosing to see the humor in the arbitrariness of the situation. Videos of users doing pushups in preparation for a night out, barking at men and punching the air have spread online, bringing even more exposure to the attacks. 

Graduate psychology major Jane Bossler favors the occasional city trip with her friends and first saw the videos across her TikTok feed.

  “I have seen a lot of videos of people making it into a meme,” she stated. “You know videos of girls sparring with each other before walking to school or holding bedazzled pepper spray in case anyone tries to test them on the streets.”

  Although this coverage expands the reach of these videos, it can also bring unwanted attention that prevents higher powers from taking any action. Bossler commented on the room for error when associating serious events with comedy.

  “When people are looking at it in a humorous light sometimes it can be misinterpreted or the true emotional distress can be undermined,” she expressed. “I think also most of the people recording the videos are in a state of shock, so some of them aren’t crying, they don’t understand what is happening so we might not understand the explicit repercussions of the attacks.” 

  Gitlin echoed a similar response, with the video’s audience playing a major factor. 

  “I don’t necessarily think the videos glamourize events but I think that the audiences that the videos reach are really essential to how the issue could be rectified…when a little immature boy sees the video and makes a nasty comment that’s doing nothing, but when someone that wants to take action and educate sees the video that is great…and that wouldn’t happen without social media.”

For Gitlin, there is still a ways to go before our streets are completely safe.

  “Violence has definitely gotten a lot better but I think due to COVID so many people have lost their jobs and aren’t going to work, so businesses are shutting down and neighborhoods are getting rougher…but then you go to a gentrified area that has wealth and there is not as much violence there, so it is a bit of a mixed bag,” she explained.

Since the attacks, the New York Police Department has arrested three people but is reluctant to categorize the cases as serial. With incidents of felony assault increasing already by three percent in 2024 according to NYPD statistics, perhaps it is time for a more analog approach to spreading awareness and action that will ensure lasting results.

Photo Credit: The Cut

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