Emma Dwyer asks why online hatred is somehow perceived as okay…
Vogue Williams – reality TV star and broadcaster – recently asked a man to move on a plane to accommodate her and her infant sitting closer to her husband and two of their children. After initially refusing, he eventually obliged. Vogue talked about it on her and her husband Spencer’s podcast. It blew up into a tabloid story where she received much criticism, people considered her entitled and debates were had online and on air about it. Vogue later came out to say it was a joke that hadn’t landed and that the abuse had become too much. She shared a screen-grab of responses to a picture of her daughter she had shared which were describing her baby as ugly.
In an era where news is largely consumed on social media, traditional media use catchy sensational headlines to get attention and drive engagement. The tabloids mine Vogue Williams’ podcasts as well as her social media feed for content, they put a clickbait headline up on social media and let the comments section get good reach. It’s a running joke on her and comedian Joanne McNally’s podcast; if Vogue says something controversial or hyperbolic, they quickly quip, ‘oh that will be a good headline’.
When I click on the comments section of these types of articles – a bad habit, I will admit – I am usually horrified by the hate and abuse not just from people who are obviously trolling and looking for a reaction but from people who seem to truly feel that hate. The internet has given us this shared platform where we can air our opinions, and hear those of others. This sounds great in theory, but what actually happens when people can be or say whatever they want? Trolling, hate speech, cyberstalking, and revenge porn are just some of the pitfalls. The internet has proven that anyone is capable of aggression, cruelty and violence.
Psychology calls this the online disinhibition effect. People say and do things online that they wouldn’t do or say in real life. This allows people to share things online they may not otherwise share. I have witnessed people opening up about traumas in Facebook groups and receiving overwhelming support and kindness. However, this is a double-edged sword, the ability to remain anonymous and invisible behind the computer screen means that hate online is rampant. Repressed anger is given a safe place to come out.
The UN have defined hate speech as, “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor.” Further to that there is a toxic culture online that isn’t defined as hate speech but can be defined as online hating. We know that this is dangerous; hate speech and online harassment have resulted in suicide and murders. So why isn’t the internet a safer place and why aren’t the main players doing more to stop online abuse?
In 2020 Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee turned whistle-blower, said, among other things, that Facebook is aware of policies and practices that they could implement to reduce hate speech but they don’t, due to concerns it would impact on profits. “The result has been more division, more harm, more lies, more threats and more combat. In some cases, this dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms and even kills people,” Haugen testified before a U.S. Senate committee in 2021. She backed this up with internal documents which proved Facebook turned a blind eye to online abuse and hate speech.
In Ireland, where many of the tech giants have their EMEA headquarters, we recently introduced the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill. When passed into law Ireland will have a new regulator, a Media Commission with an Online Safety Commissioner. Hate speech and illegal content will be identified and quickly removed from online platforms. This is a good move towards making online a safer place, hate speech will be illegal, but online hating isn’t being addressed.
Online hate is when someone publicly expresses a negative attitude toward a person. The intention is not necessarily to provoke a reaction. This distinguishes hating from trolling, hate speech, and cyberstalking; all of which aim at provoking certain reactions in other people. Online hate is comments such as: “The woman is seriously up her own ass and certainly not someone I would like to travel alongside. I would simply totally ignore her request”, or “A joke, silly c**t, really showing herself up by making excuses”, both comments on an article about Vogue asking for people to stop harassing her.
The criticism that Vogue received, the private messages calling her child ugly, the hateful comments, they are all somehow legal and tolerated. Imagine replicating this in the real world: hundreds, maybe thousands of people shouting abuse at one person. That would be cruelty. Many celebrities talk about disconnecting from social media, not reading the comments, and protecting themselves from this hate. In an age where many people are gaining followers online, this hate is just tolerated as part of the culture, we blame the victim and we rarely look at the perpetrator. So the question isn’t why do some people seem to hate Vogue Williams, but why do people online hate and what can we do to stop it?[/restrict]