Nowhere is safe. Not a cafe, not a train and not a plane.

Unwittingly and without your consent, at any moment you could become social media’s main character of the day – not the good kind.

Such was the case for two people this week, when a woman posted several videos to TikTok of a man and a woman on a flight from Houston to New York City, claiming that they were having an affair and calling them out by name. (The videos have since been deleted.)

The man, she said in the videos, was wearing a wedding ring while the pair flirted and drank throughout the flight. She said they were talking loudly enough that she could hear their first names, which she included in the video’s caption. In one video, she included an image of the pair’s empty seats. “They were making out and ended up in the bathroom,” she wrote in a caption.

Some TikTok users applauded the original poster, leaving comments that praised her for helping another woman learn what they believed to be the truth about her husband. Others were more sceptical, and many took issue with what appeared to be a growing trend in the way people use social media.

“All of us are not just being thrust under a high-powered microscope through these different platforms,” said Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate professor of communications at Cornell University who researches social media. “But we’re also turning the camera on other people as we mine not just our own lives for content, but the lives of those around us.”

Tamika Turner, a content creator in Brooklyn, posted a rebuttal to the plane video on TikTok, criticising those who were cheering on the videos and digging for personal details about the man and his family.

“Your only allegiance is to your own entertainment,” Turner, 31, said in the video, addressing many of the users on TikTok who described the sneaky recording as an act of feminism.

Social media has brought out users’ inner sleuths in recent years. Everyday users have helped find missing pets and used Facebook groups like Are We Dating the Same Guy? to gather information about their suitors. They have also played amateur detective in homicide cases, like the 2021 death of Gabrielle Petito, and asked their audiences to weigh in on strangers’ lives. Some say there is a fine line between accountability and vigilantism, and that monitoring one another’s behaviour online creates an atmosphere in which many may fear they are being constantly watched.

Duffy called this phenomenon “imagined surveillance”, the feeling that anything you do at any time, no matter how benign, could be recorded and used against you. “So many of the boundaries between personal and professional, between celebrity and ordinary have slipped away,” she said, noting that some users seemed to forget that the subjects of these videos were real people.

In a phone interview, Turner wondered if some social media users were using so-called accountability as a guise for more sinister ends.

“I think that people use the language of accountability when they mean surveillance and punishment,” Turner said. “Are we accountable to the people that we’ve harmed, or are we accountable to the Internet at large?”

In 2022, at the height of the alarm around mpox, a viral illness that can cause people to develop a painful rash, Lilly Simon was filmed surreptitiously during her commute on the subway in New York City. Simon has neurofibromatosis type 1, a genetic condition that causes tumours to grow at her nerve endings. The person who filmed her posted the video online and accused Simon of having mpox. The comments on the now-deleted video ranged from concern to threats of violence.

In 2018, a woman on a flight live-tweeted the interactions between a man and a woman sitting near her, using the hashtag #PlaneBae to chronicle what she believed to be a meet-cute. (She even included photos, with faces blurred.)

The pair’s story eventually made its way to the Today show. The man, a former professional soccer player, appeared on the show, coyly offering details about the experience and adding that he was planning to meet up with his seatmate again soon. The woman did not agree to the interview.

Clips like these almost never offer the full story, but they tend to spread across the internet quickly – a result of an attention economy in which infuriating content is often a quick route to algorithmic reward.

“I think wanting engagement is morally neutral, but some creators do it through building community, and others do it through shock and outrage,” Turner, the content creator, said.

“There is a cycle where someone puts out content and if they get that engagement and the content was negative, they’ll continue to make negative content,” she continued. “They’re going to continue to feel that cycle to feed the beast.” – The New York Times