How an Epidemic of Insults on Social Media is Changing America, and What to Do About the Crisis Before It’s Too Late
The online abuse is not getting better, it’s getting worse.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
On a beautiful fall day in November of 2017, country star Carrie Underwood was walking on the porch of her Nashville home. Underwood had left her two-year-old son Isaiah inside, and was enjoying a few moments of solitude. Then, disaster struck. She was holding a leash for her dogs, and they bounded suddenly. She reeled out of control, landing at just the right angle to break her wrist and gash her face and chin.
At a nearby hospital, doctors rushed to treat her injuries. They set her wrist in a splint; it was only a minor fracture. She needed over 40 stitches on her jaw, her lips, and her chin. The injuries were minor, and could have been far worse, but for a country star who has sold 65 million albums and appeared on American Idol, countless country music awards shows, and graced the cover of Us Weekly, Cosmopolitan, People, and many others, the news was anything but minor. For several weeks, she stay hidden from site.
On News Years Day of 2018, she finally revealed more details about the accident.
"Not looking quite the same," she said, cryptically.
On social media, fans reacted with a mix of shock and empathy. "We're here for you," said one. At the time, Underwood had decided not to post any pictures. The freak accident, now becoming a great source of mystery, led to a few posts speculating about the incident, but fans were mostly supportive and expressed concerned. Maybe it was a minor mishap?
By April, the country star had only posted three photos of herself on Instagram. One image, which showed her sitting with her hands poised on her chin, showed a slight puffiness to her lips, and her chin looked slightly different.
It was not at all like that famous Twilight Zone episode where everyone "normal" in society looked disfigured, and the abnormal main character looked perfect in every way. Yet, Underwood was not about to post a close-up photo just yet.
After a final image showed the star practicing for the Country Music Awards show, something changed. The mystery had turned into a conspiracy. The fact that Underwood chose not to post close-up photos caused fans to wonder what was really going on.
Like sleeping giants woken up from a long slumber, the trolls emerged from their caves. On her Instagram feed, the vitriol turned to anger which turned to hate. One commenter suggested that Underwood had staged the accident as a media stunt. Another called her a snowflake. "You just wanted to get plastic surgery and puff up your lips," said another.
Several hundred comments followed, some lamenting the fact that Underwood had not revealed more about her scar as a way to help those who have suffered far worse injuries. And, through the entire episode--from the original accident, to the earliest photos posted on Instagram, to the final revelations about when she would perform--it became clear that Underwood was now the victim of online abuse, a target for trolls who had started a new campaign against her.
In 2008, there were only six million people using Twitter. That year, with so much economic turmoil and a new President taking office, the concept of an everyday person being able to criticize a country music star for being a snowflake seemed inconceivable. Even the word "snowflake" was not a common put-down like it is today. For the most part, if you wanted to lambast a politician or make fun of a Hollywood celebrity, you sent an email. It's hard to believe now, but Twitter started out as a curiosity, something journalists like myself used rabidly along with a few hardcore tech enthusiasts. It wasn't part of the public discourse.
I created my first Twitter account that year, amassing a small following and posting only a few times per week. It seemed like a fad. Once, when a reader commented on one of my articles and called me a moron, I decided to delete my account. I didn't like the idea of one reader taking the "mic" in front of several thousand people and blasting my work.
At this early stage, social media seemed like it was meant as a diversion from life. We'd share our plans for the day or what we ate for lunch. Facebook, which started out as a purely visual platform for sharing photos of college students, was hardly a powerhouse. Only 150 million people joined in compared to over two billion today. Instagram, Snapchat, and many other messaging tools did not exist yet. Few people even used the term "social media" at this point, and it wasn't clear whether any of these new social networks would last.
That year, just a decade ago, it was hard to imagine that a President of the United States would ever use a social media channel as a primary form of communication. And it was even harder to imagine that an everyday citizen could comment on a post by President Trump. That the President would then come up with a name like "dopey" for a voter? Incomprehensible.
That kind of discourse would have been difficult before 2008. During a televised debate, or a press conference at the Oval Office, or on a trip to visit a fast food restaurant during a campaign, it would be almost inconceivable for a single person to have enough access or clout to be able to make a comment about a public figure--say, calling him a moron--in a way that could be viewed and archived forever. Before 2008, the affairs of public figures, chief executive officers, actors, and country music stars were closely regimented and controlled.
Over the last ten years, in a relatively short period of time, a sea change occured. Access is available to anyone. Social media has created a forum for anyone to comment on the affairs of anyone else, from music stars to journalists, from barbers to beauticians and everything in between. Apps like Yelp allow any customer to provide a public rating of any business. A site like Rate My Professors or Glassdoor now provide a forum for any college student or any employee to create an account, write a scathing review, and post it for all to see.
This free-for-all has created a monster. They are called trolls. They lurk in the shadows of Yelp and wallow in the mire of Glassdoor, they make spurious comments on Twitter and post fake news on Facebook. Birthed in 2008 and nurtured on all-access platforms like Twitter, trolls have evolved over time and now sit next to us on airplanes, slurp their coffee too loud at Starbucks, and post unflattering pictures of their co-workers on Instagram. They are everywhere.
Also, they are winning the war. Belligerent, moody, vocal, and unpredictable, modern day trolls have become a collective hive-mind, a force of disquieting power. Poke them and they grow larger. Block them and they spring to life under a new pseudonym. The social media firms stand with shaking knees, craning their necks backward to look up at these towering vindictive overlords, abusing others and crushing us all, and they are powerless.
It's not getting better. At a Congressional hearing in April of 2018, Mark Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook is losing the battle against online abuse, suggesting that the tools and technology are at least 5-10 years away from having any effect whatsoever. Artificial intelligence can monitor what we say, but the human language is too nuanced to know the difference between a friendly jab ("you suck") to an outright threat ("I'm going to kill you").
It's not a question of safety or of free speech. Those are important factors, but what is really at stake is much more profound. As the trolls keep unleashing their foul stench on the world, the entire concept of public life has changed. Give them 10 more years, and the trolls will continue infiltrating every corner of American life, from politics to journalism to education and beyond. When the trolls win, it's as though we are letting them take over society as a whole.
They win, we lose.
This might seem like overstatement, and you might not agree. Maybe you view the trolls as mere distractions and mostly harmless. You swat them away, and they curl up in a ball. A few harmless jabs, a minor insult here and there. The trolls want you to think that.
However, it is simply not the case. In the last ten years, the suicide rate among teenage girls worldwide has doubled. In South Korea, it's an epidemic -- one out of every 7,000 females and one out of every 3,000 males commits suicide every year. Suicide rates are also skewing younger. And, the hate speech is so rampant, the impact so profound, it is now impossible to ignore. Will we sit idle and let the abuse rage on unabated? Is the troll war over?
I'm curious about your view and would like to start a discussion on this topic. If you want to join a Facebook Group to discussing trolling, ping me by email.