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 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 Insta- fakeness, 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.”’
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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.