From Chrissy Teigen’s public attacks to racism after the Euros Final: Why does online abuse still have a place in 2021?
By Abby Gilchrist
When I was younger, my parents always warned me to be careful about what I put on my social media - the golden rule was ‘if you wouldn’t say it out loud or to a person’s face, don’t put it online’. The concept was bizarre to me at the time, but now as a 23 year-old graduate looking for employment, I understand their advice much more. Celebrities have to be much more careful. Any scandalous news about their behaviour, either online or in person, would, just as it would for any other person, have an impact on their job and reputation. Having grown up in the age of social media, I feel sorry for those who cannot make and learn from their online mistakes in the same way and with the same level of privacy as most of us have online - we have private accounts and are only friends with people we personally know. For those who have more celebrity and exposure online, the stakes are higher and the mistakes greater. Being human just like the rest of us, they are bound to slip up from time to time.
It always blows my mind, however, when people - either regular like myself, or celebrities - decide to act incredibly inappropriately or in a horrific way online, especially when it’s done so publicly on their own accounts. In this article, I want to examine why people have, time and time again, taken to social media with their abuse, most notably on platforms like Twitter, and I want to try to answer the following questions: why do they expose themselves so publicly and why do social media platforms still allow it?
First, regular people on Twitter. I joined Twitter in probably around 2013/2014 and then deleted it about two years ago (I have since rejoined for work/to look like a professional young adult, but so far, I haven’t tweeted anything). My reason for leaving? Firstly, because I never really used it. Secondly, I think that Twitter is the worst place on the internet for anonymous abuse and vile behaviour, and I didn’t see the need to be on a platform which allowed such behaviour. While abuse is targeted at everyone, women sadly see it the most. In 2018, Amnesty International released a study about online abuse against female journalists and politicians in the UK on Twitter, and found that 1.1 million abusive or problematic tweets were sent to women - approximately one every 30 seconds (1).
What is it about Twitter that makes it such a hotspot for abusive messages? For me, the answer is in the very concept of Twitter - short, instantaneous tweets that are restricted to 160 characters. These conditions are accompanied by the encouragement of hashtags to get topics ‘trending’ and going viral. The combination of these factors result in people uploading multiple tweets expressing every thought and opinion they have in real time, usually on events such as live sports events, reality tv shows and more. On the one hand, this can make watching something like Love Island or football entertaining, as you rush to Twitter in the breaks to see if everyone else has the same thought about a certain challenge or to see the comments of a certain corner or goal. However, far too often we see people hurling abuse and nasty comments, such as commenting on contestants’ appearance or mocking something they have said. Even this year, with Love Island’s history of online abuse, mental health issues and suicides, the family of contestant Chloe Burrows had to make a statement asking people to stop sending death threats to her social media accounts within a week of her appearance on the show. This is happening even after the call for people to be more kind on social media following the tragic death of Caroline Flack last February. It seems they didn’t get the message.
We saw the same behaviour on Twitter after the finals of the Euros at the beginning of July, with three of England’s players - Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka - receiving vile racist and abusive threats and messages online after they missed their penalties. A number of arrests have been made since the Euros final, and the Prime Minister himself has called for changes to be made to the ways in which football fans are punished for online racist abuse. But that still doesn’t answer the question as to why people think it’s ok to post this type of behaviour online in the first place, and it doesn’t solve the massive issue of anonymous online abuse. The ability to create fake and anonymous accounts means that many are unfortunately able to get away with such abuse.
According to a report by the UK Council for Internet Security in June 2019, 34% of online abuse in the UK is carried out by strangers of the victim, and around 30% is carried out by people whose real identity is not known (2). These staggeringly high figures explain why people have the confidence to post such abuse online without fear of being caught. A recent online petition has circulated online to address this very issue, asking that new users and profiles must provide ID before they can create an account. However, many do not hold back even on their own accounts, which are accompanied with their profile pictures, friends and personal information. Why do so many feel like that can get away with such online behaviour on their own personal profiles which would be so easy to trace? Simply, it’s a lack of reporting, since in many cases people probably don’t feel that the abuse is bad enough to warrant police involvement - only 3% of those who experience online abuse actually go on to seek legal assistance or report the incident to law enforcement (3). I can imagine that many people feel that the abuse is not ‘bad’ enough to report to the police, and either ignore it or report it to the social media platform. According to the Office of National Statistics, around 764,000 10-15 year old children were bullied online in the year 2020 (1 in 5). However, 52% would not describe this abuse as bullying and 24% did not report their experience to anyone, leaving them to suffer in silence, and encouraging their abusers to continue.
Now onto the more public figures. The most recent and high-profile example of a celebrity’s very public and appalling behaviour has been ex-model-turned Lip-Sync Battle co-host and cookbook writer Chrissy Teigen. She was recently outed by Courtney Stodden for the vile abusive messages she posted on Twitter back in 2011 following the then 16 year-old teenager’s marriage to 51 year-old actor Doug Hutchison. Teigen was not alone in targeting her disgust and judgement at the teenager online, however, she was persistent in her tweets, which included one encouraging Stodden to ‘take a dirt nap’ (slang for death). Teigen was 25 at the time, and yes, one could argue that this was at the dawn of social media, when many people, including celebrities, were posting inappropriate and abusive content on the internet, unaware of the long-term repercussions of their actions online - something we are now constantly hearing about in the news. This was also before Teigen was propelled into the world of celebrity in 2013 when she married singer John Legend, and so wasn’t held to the same high level of scrutiny as she would have been had she posted those tweets today. However, her youth is no excuse for her behaviour, nor is her lack of celebrity and therefore accountability.
What does this say about Teigen and others, either celebrity or not, who post such horrific messages? That they, just like the rest of us, are judgemental and rash? Yes, certainly. That they too fall victim to their thoughts and opinions and allow them to share abuse online without thinking of their consequences? Definitely. What is unfathomable to me is why people think that every opinion and view they have needs to be made public. On the one hand, it’s being frank and open - on the other, it’s abuse.
There is no doubt that, as much as we want the internet to be a place free from abuse, such comments and messages will always, sadly, be present on social media. The task now is for the social media platforms to do much, much more to prevent and stop such messages, especially public ones. The COVID pandemic has proven just what these platforms are capable of - in December 2020, Instagram introduced a COVID-19 information button on every post and story concerning COVID, and identifies posts with trigger words such as ‘COVID’, ‘vaccine’, ‘jab’ and much more. So the question is, why can’t they do the same with abuse? Instagram failed to recognise the racist use of the monkey emojis on Rashford, Sancho and Saka’s pages following the missed penalties at the Euros, despite the historic racist link to the imagery. It is clear that these platforms need to take much stronger actions against such abuse - social media companies have the tools to stop this, or at least reduce it - now is the time to use it.
As of March 2020, there is still no legal definition of bullying. Below are a number of petitions against bullying and abuse online.