If anyone is in any doubt that we’re living in- how shall I put it? – interesting times, they only need to take a brief glance at social media. For if it can be said that social media is a window into human nature, then what it’s revealing at the moment is rather worrying.
Proof of that isn’t even in the most obvious subjects, like Trump or Brexit (although both generate a lot of online debate), but it’s over things that are, in comparison, trivial. My theory is that when you see a celebrity dance competition prompting such a heated reaction online, then you know emotions are running high. It’s as if when the cloak of civility is thrown off in the most serious matters, this hostility transfers over to things that really aren’t that important.
One such example is that celebrity dance show I referred to just now, Strictly Come Dancing, and the reaction of some viewers to one of this year’s contestants, Ashley Roberts. The ex-Pussycat Doll has being criticised for having some dance experience, an accusation that probably explains why Ashley and her professional dance partner, Pasha Kovalev, were in the dance-off for three consecutive weeks.
Although there have been tweets and messages of support for the pair, with many pointing out the abusive nature of some of the critical comments, in the main, trawling through any Strictly related hashtag has been a pretty unpleasant experience, especially following the Sunday night results shows.
Many of the worst tweets focused not on Ashley’s dance background, but on her personally, alleging that she’s arrogant, for example, or making remarks about her appearance. Some even revelled in her having to compete in the dance-off. It was noticeable that this got worse over the course of the season, morphing from annoyance at her dance background to those attacks on her character and appearance.
It’s all highly reminiscent of the treatment that one contestant on last year’s Strictly, Alexandra Burke, received from some quarters online. Burke, winner of the UK version of The X Factor in 2008, also faced accusations of being a ‘professional’ dancer. As with Ashley Roberts, this soon became very personal. Depressingly, some of it came with a racial undertone.
What was striking about the tweets directed at both Ashley Roberts and Alexandra Burke, apart from the nastiness, was their self-righteousness. These individuals gave the impression that, believing they were in the right, it’s therefore acceptable to descend into what many right thinking people would call bullying.
This is a very dangerous road down which to travel, where we imply that more or less anything goes, just as long as we think we’re right. Everything else, like respect and decency, is left behind, sacrificed on the altar of self-righteous indignation.
There are a few things at work here. The first is the anger that people are feeling. In this case, that concerned the dance experience of a former member of The Pussycat Dolls. Some felt it was unfair for Ashley Roberts to even be on the show, that it was against the ‘spirit of Strictly’, and somehow a betrayal of what the programme is about (even though it’s not against the rules.)
At this point it’s worth remembering that Ashley isn’t the first celebrity with dance or performance experience to take part in Strictly Come Dancing. Some, like the actor Joe McFadden or ex-The Wanted singer Jay McGuiness, have even won their respective seasons. She wasn’t even the only one this year, with fellow finalist Faye Tozer (from the band Steps) also having some dance experience. Although Faye did bear the brunt of some online criticism for this, it was a lot less bitter than what was directed at Ashley Roberts.
This anger is then exacerbated by the echo chamber that social media, especially Twitter, can unfortunately become. Like minds meet, fuelled by a mutual sense of anger, frustration and moral outrage that invariably also blows the issue out of all proportion. In this increasingly toxic atmosphere, comments can become increasingly extreme.
The treatment of Ashley Roberts is one example, but there are others. The actress Amandla Stenberg was the victim of a social media backlash after she was cast in the adaptation of The Hate U Give. Ruby Rose experienced a similarly hostile response when she was given the role of Batwoman in The CW’s Arrowverse.
Sport has also seen its fair share of internet-based hostility. Tottenham Hotspur and France midfielder Moussa Sissoko has been subject to online abuse that, in some cases, arguably carried racist connotations, comments that cross the line from criticising a player’s form to something more sinister. Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling recently suggested that the media can fuel the racist abuse that non-white players face. It’s not hard to see how social media can also become a contributor to such vile discourse.
We can ask the question about whether the people behind all of this online vitriol are like this offline. It’s certainly an interesting question: to what extent does social media make us like this, or is it perhaps true that it reflects who we really are?
Then there’s the issue of the role of social media companies like Facebook and Twitter. Of course, there is a case that they could be doing more to tackle online abuse, especially when it comes to the speed with which such material is identified and removed. As regards Ashley Roberts and Faye Tozer, could the BBC have done more to protect them from the trolls?
However, what about the responsibility of the people making these comments, to not make them in the first place? Even if you feel strongly about a subject, surely it’s possible to air your views without descending into abuse?
That some people evidently can’t is an indication as to what’s really motivating their anger. Whilst some of those critical of Ashley Roberts or Faye Tozer concerning their dance experience, or Amandla Stenberg over her casting, for example, were genuine, I don’t think the same can be said for all. I believe the moral indignation is a cover for something far less noble, like bigotry, jealousy and envy.
Take the hatred directed at Kristen Stewart. Some may blame it on rabid Robert Pattinson fans, angry that she cheated on him with the director Rupert Sanders, as if that in any way excuses it. That ignores the fact that much of this vitriol started as soon as Stewart and Pattinson began their relationship, and so the affair with Sanders can’t be the reason.
That the same backlash greeted the singer FKA Twigs when she was in a relationship with Pattinson exposes the reason behind both hostile reactions: jealousy. In the case of the hatred directed at Kristen Stewart post the Sanders story, it merely disguised itself as anger at her for the ending of the relationship with Pattinson.
It’s also as if some think that if the target of their anger is a celebrity, then it somehow doesn’t really count as bullying. In this line of thinking, being famous, wealthy and attractive means they’re fair game for vitriol. For certain people, those things are enough of a justification in themselves to target a person in the public eye, and that person should take it as part of their job. The ‘rough’ with the ‘smooth’, as it were.
Maybe the fact it’s online adds to the air of unreality. Perhaps some of those making these comments would never dream of doing it to someone in ‘real life’, yet think nothing of unleashing the most bitter, hate-filled bile at famous people over the internet. And therein lies the problem: the tendency to see what happens online as being different to ‘real life’, so another set of rules apply.
If we’re ever to recover a sense of decorum in our online discourse, this attitude must change. Alongside this, we must also see people as human beings. That might sound obvious, but it’s so obvious I think we forget it from time to time. No matter if they’re famous, earn lots of money, live in nice, big houses, etc. No one deserves abuse, either face to face or via the internet.
Ultimately, we have to rediscover what it means to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. To that end, if you’re ever tempted to vent your spleen at someone online, consider this: How would you feel if you switched places with the target of your words?