Trigger Warning: Monica Lewinsky’s new PSA campaign video on cyberbullying includes content, prompts, and imagery that some may find upsetting.
Monica Lewinsky wants the world to take cyberbullying as seriously as any other health epidemic you can think of. The way she sees it, hateful speech and actions online can be similarly deadly. The social activist knows the toll it can take from personal experience.
In the 1990s, after details of her affair with the president at the time, Bill Clinton, leaked, she went from a private citizen to the tabloids’ favourite headline fodder. When the story broke online in January 1998, as she put it in her 2015 TED Talk, she was swept up into “scandal brought to you by the digital revolution.” She called herself “patient zero” for losing your reputation in the age of the internet.
But that wasn’t the end of her story. Today, she’s made a name for herself as an activist. And for October’s Anti-Bullying Month, she’s releasing her latest anti-bullying campaign: “The Epidemic.” It tells the story of an "average American teenager," Hailey, as she navigates high school. However, there's more to her story than you can see at first glance.
In light of the new campaign, we asked Lewinsky to weigh in on cyberbullying, Gen Z’s approach to social media, and the internet era of Caroline Calloway.
How is cyberbullying like a disease? If it's the sickness, what's the treatment and the cure?
Like a disease, it’s contagious and spreading — infecting our society. The cure is not engaging and clicking with compassion.
This campaign video is so intense. How do you hope this heavy approach will re-contextualise the issue of cyberbullying for viewers?
This PSA is hard to see. The signs of cyberbullying can also be hard to see —we have instant recognition for physical pain, but less so with emotional pain. It can be hard to really understand the pain caused by online harassment. This is especially true for young people who haven’t lived long enough to really grasp the full extent of consequences that can come from this behaviour — consequences ranging from bad to grave. This PSA educates people through an emotional and devastating experience, in hopes that they'll better understand the consequences.
Lastly, when you're the target, it can be hard to see that you can survive this.
In the last few decades, there's been this permanent element to digital harassment. The things you say stay online forever. However, I think it's noteworthy that Gen Z is using platforms where messages and conversations disappear. It's like this new generation doesn't want to leave a trace. How does that impact cyberbullying?
I think Gen Z, having been raised with social media, has found work-arounds for some of the failures reflecting the permanence of online trails. But it’s not without its problems. First, I worry that a perceived level of privacy with quickly disappearing images and text actually leave some more vulnerable to later exposure — it weakens the notion of thinking before you post. And in terms of cyberbullying, it makes it worse. It’s easier to think you can get away with it and harder to capture evidence.
I can mainly speak to my experience, but the amount of attention, scrutiny, and thoughts sent your way are jarring on perceptible and imperceptible levels. It affects you both psychologically and energetically.
Most often people who become known have sought lives where they’re recognisable. Caroline Calloway became more well-known because of some controversy, but she was already known publicly… and choosing that. Lauren Duca chose a modern approach to criticism by owning instead of retreating. In fact, from what I know of Lauren’s story — which is not everything — her choices reflected a little of what we did in last year’s campaign, #DefyTheName, with name-calling.
I was definitely not bold like that as a sudden public person. In part, that may have been because I was also in legal jeopardy.
What do you do if you think you might be the bully? How do you grapple with that and try to do better?
In my opinion, if you think you might be engaging in bullying behaviour, the first thing I’d do is recognise that there is likely a personal issue you’re grappling with or an emotional wound that needs immediate attention. Of course, this is not true in all cases, but the adage “hurt people, hurt people” explains a lot of this kind of behaviour.
You've been on a mission to end cyberbullying for years now, and have experienced its dangerous effects yourself. How have you seen things change over the last three decades? What do you think is next?
What has made things better is that we are talking about this. Cyberbullying is a global conversation that is being had. Most important, we’re de-stigmatising what it means to be bullied. If people feel less shame, they will not suffer in silence at all or for as long.
Over time what has made this issue more challenging to address and cyberbullying more pervasive is, of course, technology. Smart phones and cameras on phones have taken this behaviour to a whole new level.
When we look back even farther to when the horse and buggy were replaced by the Model-T Ford, there was a period of time where there were no rules on the road. Eventually society decided, for safety, we needed to shift that. Technology preceded the social norms shift. I think we will move towards that model of change.
My hope is that — while we're helping targets or victims feel less alone and get help sooner, while we're aiming to shift the culture and psychology that leads to this kind of behaviour, while we're considering legislative inroads — a social media platform develops that has more compassion and empathy baked in to the design and intended use. I don’t think any of the main social media companies had cyberbullying and harassment as a goal in their business plans, but I think next iterations can and should learn from these earlier mistakes.
To learn more about this PSA, you can visit The Epidemic. Please be warned, however, that the video and accompanying prompts may be disturbing to some.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
If you are thinking about suicide, please contact Samaritans on 116 123. All calls are free and will be answered in confidence.