So­cial me­dia has turned us into gen­er­a­tion an­gry

As a Celebrity Big Brother star whipped the in­ter­net into a frenzy last week, Polly Dun­bar ex­am­ines how so­cial me­dia has in­flamed us all

Grazia (UK) - - Contents -

last week, a for­mer Em­merdale ac­tress be­came the un­likely re­cip­i­ent of the ti­tle ‘most hated woman in Bri­tain’. Rox­anne Pal­lett dom­i­nated tabloid head­lines af­ter ac­cus­ing fel­low Celebrity Big Brother con­tes­tant Ryan Thomas of hitting her ‘like a boxer would punch a bag’, when footage of the in­ci­dent told a very dif­fer­ent – play­ful, to­tally in­nocu­ous – story.

There’s no ex­cus­ing her ac­tions, which threat­ened to destroy an in­no­cent man’s ca­reer and tear his rep­u­ta­tion to tat­ters. The ac­tress was also at­tacked for ‘mak­ing a mock­ery’ of gen­uine vic­tims of abuse. She apol­o­gised, but her vil­i­fi­ca­tion con­tin­ued last week on Twit­ter, where words like 

‘ bitch’ and ‘psy­cho’ were tossed about amid dis­turb­ing threats of phys­i­cal harm. The longer the storm con­tin­ued, the more un­com­fort­able ques­tions it raised about the level of pub­lic vit­riol we now di­rect at those who have some­how trans­gressed – and the role so­cial me­dia plays in fu­elling our rage.

On any given day, pock­ets of Twit­ter re­sem­ble a pitch­fork-wield­ing mob bay­ing for the blood of in­di­vid­u­als who’ve said or done some­thing deemed objectionable. Some­times, like last week, it feels as though the en­tire com­mu­nity is united in irate con­dem­na­tion – of­ten de­spite hav­ing only the flim­si­est knowl­edge of the per­son or sit­u­a­tion be­ing con­demned (case in point: this year’s CBB has been watched by fewer than two mil­lion view­ers, mean­ing many of those com­ment­ing on the event in ques­tion wouldn’t have seen it at the time of broad­cast).

So what is it about so­cial me­dia that makes us so damned livid all the time? ‘It gives us a very un­usual mod­ern ex­pe­ri­ence,’ says psy­chol­o­gist Emma Kenny. ‘In the past, when we saw some­thing on tele­vi­sion that made us an­gry, we’d have had time to process it, and by the time we got round to writ­ing to Of­com, we’d have calmed down. The dif­fer­ence is that, now, we have an out­let for in­stant emo­tional dis­place­ment: I have a feel­ing, and now I’ve put it out there into the world, it’s gone.’

Vent­ing our anger by tap­ping out a quick tweet gives us a sense of in­stant release. But as Emma points out, it has toxic side ef­fects. When we unite with thou­sands of oth­ers who share our an­noy­ance, we’re giv­ing per­mis­sion to those who have gen­uine ag­gres­sion and hos­til­ity is­sues to in­dulge them. The mob men­tal­ity of Twit­ter ‘ex­ac­er­bates and vo­lu­mises that kind of be­hav­iour,’ she says. No won­der re­searchers at Bei­hang Uni­ver­sity in Be­jing found that anger spreads faster and more broadly than any other emo­tion on so­cial me­dia. It’s con­ta­gious.

It’s also eas­ier than any of us might like to ad­mit to for­get that the in­di­vid­u­als we’re crit­i­cis­ing on­line are ac­tual hu­man be­ings, who have the po­ten­tial to be hurt by our at­tacks. That’s some­thing influencer Scar­lett Dixon, who blogs un­der the name Scar­lett Lon­don, dis­cov­ered last week, when she was pub­licly shamed for post­ing a pho­to­graph of her­self on In­sta­gram.

The of­fend­ing pic­ture ( left) showed the 24-year-old sit­ting on her bed, sur­rounded by heart-shaped bal­loons, ap­pear­ing to be en­joy­ing a break­fast of pan­cakes and ‘ bot­tom­less tea’. How­ever, a closer look re­vealed that her cup of tea was empty, the pan­cakes were ac­tu­ally folded tor­tilla wraps and a bot­tle of Lis­ter­ine – which spon­sored the post – was dis­played promi­nently on her bed­side ta­ble.

The post went vi­ral, at­tract­ing ridicule from thou­sands of so­cial me­dia users who de­clared it the ul­ti­mate ex­am­ple of In­stafak­e­ness, in which influencers are paid by brands to ped­dle per­fect-seem­ing lives. But in­evitably, some of the crit­i­cism Scar­lett re­ceived was far more sin­is­ter. ‘Ini­tially, I found the com­ments quite funny,’ she tells Grazia. ‘But they quickly be­came a vi­cious bul­ly­ing cam­paign, pub­licly sham­ing and mock­ing me. A lot of com­ments said I was the rea­son so many young peo­ple suf­fer from men­tal health is­sues, which is a rather large claim to pin on me. One said: “Just imag­ine it… you’ve got glass em­bed­ded in your flesh, you are bleed­ing to death and end up in A&E with per­ma­nent scar­ring.”’

Scar­lett ad­mits that to any­one who isn’t used to see­ing such posts by life­style blog­gers, the pic­ture ‘may look ut­terly ridicu­lous’. But she points out that she was trans­par­ent about the pic­ture be­ing an ad­vert, and says she tries to use her plat­form pos­i­tively: ‘I blog about sub­jects such as the chronic di­ges­tive con­di­tion I suf­fer from and men­tal health.

‘I think peo­ple lose touch with the fact that there’s a real per­son be­hind all of this, with feel­ings and a fam­ily.’

Emma agrees, say­ing, ‘ When you tweet a crit­i­cism of some­body, you’re not think­ing about the po­ten­tial im­pact on that in­di­vid­ual; you’re think­ing about the shared con­sen­sus re­gard­ing your feel­ings, which makes you feel val­i­dated. But you have no con­trol over how it af­fects that per­son.’

The an­swer, then, is per­haps as sim­ple as con­sid­er­ing whether we’d say what­ever we’re about to tweet to the per­son’s face. If we wouldn’t dream of it, maybe we should find an­other, less toxic, out­let for that rage.


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