friends in yellow t-shirts holding donations
“No longer about the act of giving, these videos are really about bringing attention to ourselves as givers — and being rewarded for it," writes Minks. (Stock photo by Getty Images)

Topics: Ethical Living, June 2023 | Opinion

Can filming good deeds do more harm than good?

What happens when we treat people in need as content for an algorithm


If you’ve spent any time on social media recently, you’ve likely come across videos of people filming themselves performing random acts of kindness. These popular clips range from the relatively ordinary (paying for an unsuspecting family’s groceries) to the outlandish (handing out $20,000 each to unhoused people on the street).

The popular MrBeast (Jimmy Donaldson), who at the time of writing is the most subscribed individual on YouTube, is this trend’s greatest purveyor. Zachery Dereniowski, of Windsor, Ont., known as @mdmotivator on TikTok, has amassed millions of followers since the beginning of the pandemic. There are hundreds more of these online do-gooders.

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One may leave these videos feeling warm and fuzzy; in a world so laden with negativity, viral acts of kindness can be inspiring. Personally, however, I find the videos odd and off-putting. Though these humanitarian displays are seemingly designed for the purpose of spreading compassion and joy, look closer and you’ll find something else entirely.

For starters, many of these videos are filmed without the consent of their subjects, most of whom are genuinely vulnerable. And the generous nature of these random acts is undermined by the fact that they’re not random at all — these are fine-tuned pieces of content, posted on major social media platforms in exchange for followers, likes, comments, brand partnerships and profit.

No longer about the act of giving, these videos are really about bringing attention to ourselves as givers — and being rewarded for it. In his 1651 book Leviathan, the influential English philosopher Thomas Hobbes pondered why people perform good deeds, ultimately concluding: “No man giveth but with intention of good to himself; because gift is voluntary; and of all voluntary acts the object to every man is his own pleasure.” Perhaps there really are no truly selfless acts out there, but kindness videos are still one step too far.

While being the recipient of free groceries or a wad of cash would undoubtedly feel great in the moment, the exchange creates a distorted world view in which one begins to think and behave like an algorithm. “Will a video of me helping a stranger get a lot of likes on Instagram?” It’s easy to see how we’re able to lose our shared humanity when operating from this position — our actions lose meaning.

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Instead of treating our fellow human beings as content-in-waiting, we can actually do good by donating our money and time to established charities and organizations. It’s something the Australian philosopher Peter Singer refers to as “effective altruism” — finding the best ways to help people with the resources we can spare. And if you ever do find yourself wanting to go above and beyond for a stranger, consider doing so quietly. With so many around the world actively struggling, society would benefit if we didn’t do the bare minimum of “good” and still expect praise.

I have to wonder how many influencers who centre their brands on kindness would still participate in these good deeds if cameras were no longer involved. Are they giving effectively? My gut tells me no on both counts — and that’s the ultimate problem.


Caroline Minks is a writer in Mississauga, Ont.

This story first appeared in Broadview’s June 2023 issue with the title “Stop Filming Good Deeds.”

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