Our ability to comment publicly on Instagram posts, Tweets, and Facebook statuses is both a blessing and a curse. It can let us commiserate with someone's joys and sorrows in life. And importantly, it also allows us to call out individuals for racist or sexist remarks, and to draw attention to larger issues. But recently, social media has became a hub where bullying athletes, singers, actors, and well, anyone really, has become completely acceptable. Gabby Douglas was one of the most publicized victims of this during the Olympics. After Douglas tweeted her support for teammates Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, some Twitter users railed against her for supposedly looking "salty" while watching from the stands. It went so far that she eventually had to issue an apology — even though she did nothing wrong.
And then there's Justin Bieber. Bieber has made his fair share of mistakes over the years, but only recently has the online abuse gotten out of control. Yesterday, Bieber deleted his Instagram account after fans posted hateful comments about his new girlfriend. When he reacted emotionally — rather than just ignoring the comments — many people accused him of having an entertainment tantrum. Maybe the whole thing is just a publicity stunt, but we don't think so. It seems that our online negativity has reached a tipping point, and celebrities are tired of dealing with it.
Our online negativity has reached a tipping point, and celebrities are tired of dealing with it.
Celebrities, such as Bieber, knowingly expose themselves to public critique when they share things about their personal lives in appearances or on social media. That's part of being a public figure, whether you like it or not. But well-informed critique is not the same as abuse and bullying; the latter is written with the explicit intent to hurt the person the comment is about. It's not (necessarily) that trolls are terrible people. When we post in comments sections, it can feel like a safe forum in which to vent. It can even be a power trip. Here are celebrities making millions of dollars, and yet anyone can "speak" to them through their social media account. You can touch their lives in some way, if only for a fleeting, @-reply moment. And perhaps there's a disconnect. We know that teenagers bullying one another online is bad, but we don't recognize that we're behaving that same way in our comments to celebrities. As The New Yorker has noted, a large group forum (such as a comments section on a post) can create a psychological effect known as diffusion of responsibility. Someone who types something mean will feel less accountable if others are also writing negative comments — and so it snowballs into an unbearable situation like Bieber's. Furthermore, research has found that those who comment anonymously are even more likely to feel unaccountable online. This means that those who hide behind the safe cover of an ambiguous account can post freely, without feeling any responsibility for their words. (However, other studies have found people can be just as mean without pseudonyms. We're just as comfortable hiding behind our phone screens as behind fake names.) Online bullying is no less hurtful than comments spewed hatefully in person, and psychologists have said it's unhealthy — not just for the recipient, but for the writer of the vitriol, too. Typing hurtful, negative comments is a waste your own time and energy and everyone else's. If we want to change the largely hateful culture of online discourse, we, as fans and followers, need to take responsibility and start looking at our own behavior with a more critical eye.