In her final days, the heartfelt message posted on Instagram by TV presenter and personality Caroline Flack was “In a world where you can be anything, be kind”. The remark has since gained significant traction with brands and celebrities re-iterating it and the #bekind hashtag taking off across social media. Whilst the reasons behind any suicide are of course always complex and it would neither be right or wise to postulate as a spectator what was happening in this woman’s life, it is fair to say that Flack received an amount of online speculation and bullying that was cruel, troubling and reflective of a wider issue; that the impact of online rhetoric can have real-life effects that stretch far beyond any screen or keyboard.
A Breeding Ground for Social Sadism
The internet has undoubtedly been a breeding ground for all of society’s more nefarious and sadistic sides, and there’s been a long history of that abuse being targeted at women in particular. If you think about things such as the notorious ‘Are You Up?’ site back at the start of the internet’s incubation, a site that profited in revenge porn and clearly delighted in the pain it was causing. But perhaps more disturbing than the site owner’s pleasure was that of the huge number of bystanders and visitors to it who enjoyed partaking in this very public humiliation. Internet trolling is possibly the most disturbing example of how the internet seems to have heightened sadism. The co-ordinated campaigns of online abuse and ridicule (sometimes crossing over into the real world) are remarkable because they seem to be about both finding pleasure in inflicting pain on the individuals targeted and also because they often are in response to what seems to be a justice framework. The idea that this behavior is somehow deserved according to the set of rules that the trolls hold.
There is also a trend for this abuse to come at those who already seem vulnerable. The tragic suicide of schoolgirl Natasha MacBryde saw her family then receive unending taunts and abuse from online trolls. And this is not an isolated case of such abuse targeted at grieving and broken relatives. Other high profile examples of trolling abuse taking tragic effects include that of the Australian TV presenter Charlotte Dawson. Dawson who had been well known to be suffering from mental health problems suffered significant online abuse often being incited to “go hang yourself”. After years of trying to combat and reason with this abuse, she tragically did take her own life. In 2017 a 17-year-old French girl named Oceane became the first person to live-stream their own suicide on the platform Periscope. Right up until the end of that broadcast she was receiving comments and remarks on the stream taunting and ridiculing an overtly tragic act.
What then is it that so brings out this level of cruelty? Whilst it’s understandable that the internet is in a way a microcosm of the world we live in and that world is always going to have dark corners and unpleasant and cruel moments and people in it, there is a sense that our online behavior seems to magnify this. It seems unlikely that all of those who sent online abuse to the cases mentioned would have done so if they were stood face to face with the person in question. So is the internet making us nastier or just allowing us a platform to release cruelty we wouldn’t usually have an outlet for? It’s become an accepted phenomenon that the sense of distance and removal created by commenting or messaging someone on the internet makes us all less wary or inhibited in what we’re saying. And indeed distance has been shown to bring out our more sadistic sides. Research has shown that psychological distancing in the instance of warfare- the use of things such as drone pilots- makes individuals more likely to kill. And there is a concern that the growth of things such as AI will only increase this.
The ‘Be Kind’ movement is certainly a good thing; the idea that we should be promoting generosity and kindness to one another. But the roots of online sadism and rhetoric stretch deep. They reflect other problems in our society too. A sense of alienation, of anger, of misogyny and perhaps a nastiness in humanity that we’d rather not accept. More needs to be done to curb the torrent of online abuse but we need to ensure that we do not simplify these issues.