The Twitter Problem: The Press in the Age of Social Media

cw: Suicide, domestic abuse, bullying

Social media is a difficult beast to navigate for anyone, but is particularly difficult for those in the public eye. We presume to have a certain degree of understanding of such a person, their relationships, and their lived experiences. An understanding that is at best based off a perfectly manufactured Instagram feed or a brief 240-character tweet. For those in the public eye, particularly celebrities who have built careers from social media, the scrutiny and abuse that can arise in online spaces can be dangerous and set a troubling precedent.

British television personality Caroline Flack took her own life in February this year, quickly prompting a debate about the role of the tabloid press and social media in her death. Flack, a former Love Island presenter, has been on British television since the early 2000s, and has received both criticism and praise throughout her career.

She was most recently in the press due to domestic abuse allegations against her, and whilst all allegations of abuse should be taken seriously, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) – the criminal prosecutions agency responsible for taking Flack’s case to trial- came under fire for pursuing the case in court despite her boyfriend, Lewis Burton, not wishing to press charges. Following her death, many, including her management team, have critiqued CPS for pursuing the case, especially considering the hounding and speculation it had received from the press, leading to Flack’s “vulnerable” state. However, due to the nature of the allegations, CPS defended the decision to pursue the case, on the grounds that victims of domestic abuse may be coerced into dropping the charges.  

Flack received ongoing attention in the press, with The Guardian analysing that The Sun published a total of 99 articles about Flack in the 6 months before her death, ranging from positive to negative views. Since the allegations of abuse, the negative articles doubled, with many including graphic details about the alleged assault. On the day of Flack’s death, The Sun removed an article that was published on Valentine’s Day after it attracted public backlash.The article contained a ‘comedic’ Valentine’s Day inspired graphic, manipulated picture referencing the assault. Despite the outcry and criticism towards the article on Twitter, no explanation was given by The Sun about why it was removed. The media’s scrutiny of the trial, and their framing of Flack, calls into question the level and type of coverage the press should be given in cases like this. The press’ harsh judgement of Flack during the ongoing trial has come under fire, with commentators, politicians and social media calling for greater press accountability.

The outcry against the press on social media doesn’t excuse the role that Twitter, and other online platforms, play in brutally scrutinising celebrities. Social media, particularly Twitter’s, need to dissect celebrities’ lives leads to quick, and often unduly harsh, judgements and incorrect conclusions. Flack commented on the effect of social media and the difficulty of living in the public eye in her 2015 biography, writing “Perhaps the worst is Twitter. However vile they are, newspapers have to be careful because of libel and privacy. But Twitter is different, nobody censures that”.

Twitter has long been a playground for hate speech, bullying and trolling. In the past year, the board have recently announced updated policies around hateful content, after users raised concerns about Twitter’s ability to enforce their pre-existing rules and policies. And whilst these changes are a step in the right direction, policy alone isn’t going to prevent harmful, destructive comments and threads targeting those in the public eye.

An online movement, #BeKind started in the days following Flack’s death, in which multiple British celebrities took part. Many of Caroline Flack’s friends have taken to Twitter and other forms of social media to comment on the criticism and hatred from Twitter that Flack received in the months leading to her death. One friend, Fiona Fagan, called out the ‘keyboard warriors’ saying that “the criticism online really took her (Flack) to the ground, she was very insecure, very fragile, concerned about her weight, her figure.”

Meanwhile, celebrities who knew Flack have been criticised for publicly sharing messages from the late television personality. Dawn O’Porter, a close friend of Flack’s has called it a ‘betrayal’, with people such as Danny Cipriani, an ex-boyfriend of Flack’s, posting his last WhatsApp message with Flack.

Pier’s Morgan, another British television personality, came under fire after using his personal messages with Caroline Flack, in an ongoing argument with The Good Place actor Jameela Jamil. Accusing Jamil of hypocrisy, after she spoke out against online bullying following Flack’s death, Morgan shared private messages from Flack back in 2019. In them she urged Morgan for help due to “the hate she (Jamil) aims at me” when Jamil spoke out about a new reality program called The Surjury, Flack was signed up for.

Morgan’s tweets represent the hypocrisy often present in online debates, and the ways in which social media allows people to take advantage of events for their own gain. Morgan – a friend of Flack’s – using her private messages to win him a twitter argument, demonstrates the ways in which Twitter can easily derail a civil debate, with Morgan’s continuous harassment of Jamil including accusing her of faking physical illnesses.

Twitter has the potential to be an amazing social media platform, however, the way in which hateful comments, hate speech and bigotry are left uncensored, and under policed can have devastating impacts, not only on the mental health of an individual, but on the safety and health of the wider online community.

Having to navigate society as a woman, or as somebody who doesn’t fit into the ‘norm’, is incredibly challenging at the best of times. Having to navigate hateful, unsubstantiated rumours and comments about your appearance, your personality, your career, from both the press and social media, makes me glad I’m not famous.

The press must be held accountable for the role they’ve played in the vilification of Flack. If professional institutions which have ethical codes and moral obligations written in their policies, can get away with publishing graphic, harmful content, and obsessing over a television personality, what message does that send to the public? Writing about abuse allegations of public figures is of course important, however, the press has a responsibility and obligation to remain impartial. Yet, who can blame the newspapers? They’re simply feeding the Twitter fire. A fire that is fuelled by our quick judgement, incessant need to be right, and most prominently; our obsession with celebrity gossip.

Aside from Twitter being suddenly deleted, I don’t know what the solution is. Maybe it’s better policies around bullying and hateful content being implemented online. Perhaps it’s greater accountability, and tighter regulations for the press. Maybe it’s greater education and awareness of online bullying and mental health within schools and the community. Whatever the solution is, I think we can all agree that more needs to be done, and soon.

~ Libby Robbins Bevis

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