Commentary

This Week In Bullying: Social Media's Troll Problem

The Internet may be for porn, as “Avenue Q” put it, but social media is for assholes to say nasty things to people they’ve never even met, judging by the growing volume of complaints about bullying, trolls, and general meanness online. Unfortunately it’s not clear what, if anything, social media companies can do to combat this menace, which is beginning to drive some high-profile users (and ordinary folks) away.

The most notable example from the last week or so is the mountain of vitriol dropped on poor Gabby Douglas, the 20-year-old U.S. gymnast who won a gold medal in the women’s gymnastics team all-around event at the Rio Olympics. One might think her performance, achieving feats of balance and dexterity that no regular human being can even contemplate, would be enough to satisfy the hordes – but no.

Douglas was savaged for not putting her hand over her heart during the national anthem, even though she was standing at attention, which many people consider sufficient; for not smiling enough as the world rained abuse on her; and for allowing her hair to become oh-so-slightly unkempt as she flung herself from the uneven bars to stick a double layout landing, among other activities befitting a demigod. I mean…

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True, legions of supporters came to Douglas’ defense, but the fact is the social media hate had already gone home, bringing the star gymnast (who isn’t even old enough to have the drink she needs after all this, fer Chrissakes) to tears during the games. In ancient Greece, the community awarded Olympic victors free food and board for life; nowadays we jab you with a cattle prod and then say sorry with some supportive hashtags. That’s nice.

Moving on. While Justin Bieber doesn’t normally leap to mind as a social media victim – indeed one might say we’re all his social media victims – the events of the last week almost make you feel sorry for him (I said almost). Bieber, who had attracted an astonishing 77.8 million followers on Instagram, deleted his account after it became a forum for arguments and abuse from erstwhile fans who disapproved of his dalliance 17-year-old Sofia Richie, five years his junior.

Sure, the age gap is a little creepy, and actually illegal in some places (although the age of consent is 16 in Bieber’s native Canada), but even creepier were the responses from Bieber’s enraged fans, for example leaving comments on the singer’s Instagram account urging Richie to kill herself. Bieber first responded by threatening to make his account private, adding, “If you guys are really fans you wouldn’t be so mean to people like that,” before simply deleting the account altogether.

While this evidence is obviously anecdotal, coming close on the heels of the social media abuse directed against actress and comedian Leslie Jones last month, it’s more proof that the trolls seem to be gaining the upper hand online. It’s nice that people eventually come to the defense of targeted individuals in some cases, but what about the hundreds of millions of ordinary users who can’t rely on celebrity status to rally support? True, they’re probably less likely to come in for the mass trolling in the first place, but when it happens they have effectively no recourse except to delete their accounts or endure spewing hatred every time they log on.

Summing up, here’s a slow clap for humanity.  Great job guys.

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