Influencers, Gossip Forums and Press Scrutiny: the Modern Culture of Bullying

On a dark corner of the internet, individuals who find themselves increasingly frustrated with influencers gather to share their grievances. Under the guise of anonymity, these individuals vent and unleash the rage that has been seething within them. Sometimes the discussions are productive, picking apart questionable decisions, words used or comments made that they find potentially problematic in tone or impact. Think the recent spate of influencers heading to Dubai amid lockdown for ‘essential work’. Or the barrage of fast fashion hauls posted at a time when many are struggling financially. Or Molly-Mae’s insensitive use of the word “chav” whilst discussing a Gucci jacket.

Other times the rage that fuels these conversations turns things sour: comments become abusive, disrespectful, cruel. The line separating gossip, concern and frustration over the actions of those with significant influence in the public eye, and what amounts to downright trolling, is increasingly blurred. 

Tattle Life and Guru Gossip, the sites in question, have had their fair share of criticism. In the press – itself under fire in ongoing conversations about media harassment – they are branded as hotbeds of bullying rather than forums which facilitate constructive criticism, as the sites describe themselves. A petition, ‘Close the Forum Tattle Life’ gained traction last month, with many influencers encouraging their followers to sign. Michelle Chapman, the YouTuber behind the petition, claimed she had read comments about herself that amounted to “bullying, harassment, discrimination, even doxxing”, sometimes involving her young children. Everything from her appearance, her home, her parenting and her weight was up for discussion. In an attempt to get others to sign the petition addressed to parliament, Chapman wrote: “Bullying can lead to suicide. What’s it going to take before this forum gets removed?”.

Chapman’s rather ominous plea of “what’s it going to take?” seems to emerge out of increased cultural awareness about the very real damage online abuse can have on those on its receiving end. The events of recent years have made our awareness of this potential damage distressingly inescapable. Caroline Flack’s death last year sparked a conversation about the impact of social media and press attention, subjected as she was to intense, incessant scrutiny. Her suicide was the third instance of a Love Island star taking their own life in as many years, after Sophie Gradon in 2018 and Mike Thalassitis in 2019.

It is not just Love Island that has prompted conversations about the impact of reality television and its aftermath on participants’ mental health. In 2019 Jeremy Kyle’s culture of bullying came under fire after it emerged a contestant committed suicide after failing a lie detector test on the show. The programme was soon taken off the air entirely.

There are those who argue that an influencer’s or celebrity’s presence in the public eye leaves one inevitably open to criticism. As Tattle Life claims, these people “choose to monetise” their existence. As Michelle Chapman witnessed, viewers and followers feel entitled to comment on that existence, especially when they are the ones generating the influencer’s monetary gain. 

An influencer does, after all, influence. When that influence is problematic, it needs to be called out. Though there is, of course, a marked difference between ‘calling out’ helpfully and thoughtfully and hurling abuse across the virtual sphere. The problem is how to police that difference, ensuring that social media does not leave celebrities prey to witch-hunts, but that also fosters a culture where fans and ordinary people feel able to criticise those very celebrities when they disappoint us.

The ‘be kind’ message has complicated things somewhat. Somewhere along the line, criticism in all its forms, even that which is constructive, has become synonymous with abuse and trolling. Many social media users are co-opting the be-kind sentiment as a means of deflecting all criticism, even when it is deserved: innocent; constructive. 

A small brand on Instagram, which will remain anonymous, used this very tactic when an influencer recently took to the platform to express their disappointment at their experience with the brand. The influencer was not abusive or unkind but was sharing with her followers her dissatisfying exchange with the brand’s customer service, as well as the product purchased. The brand in question presents itself as luxury, often working with other influencers to try and sell this vision of itself. A saga soon unfolded with the brand hitting back that they did not deserve the apparent level of anger the influencer was displaying, despite the fact that as a brand they were, objectively, in the wrong. The brand warned her to “be kind”. The influencer felt she had been manipulated: her genuine disappointment, helpfully presented to her followers, was made to appear cruel and abusive. The brand’s TrustPilot reviews tell a similar story, with customer service responses to these complaints often appearing condescending and rude, a far cry from ‘the customer is always right’ sentiment. 

Where then, do we draw the line? That there is a problem with social media and press scrutiny is clear. That trolling and online abuse have very real consequences for those victimised by it, is also clear. To close online forums that fuel anonymous abusive discussions would be a start, though there is nothing to stop them popping up elsewhere, on new websites, the old members following close behind. The duty of care to those in the public eye, even to those who choose to put their lives online, lies, it seems, with all of us. Change can only come from considerations of the impact of our behaviour online, as well as comprehensive enquiries by those with the power to institute legal changes. Only when we repair the culture of bullying and scrutiny reserved for those in the public eye can constructive criticism be once again seen as harmless rather than just another example of online cruelty. 

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Imogen Carter De Jong

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May 2022
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