Rachel Carr contemplates the role of social media and tabloid journalism in the wake of Caroline Flack’s death. TW: suicide.
The British media and public alike were rocked last month by the news that popular presenter, winner of Strictly Come Dancing and accused abuser Caroline Flack had died by suicide. The huge shock that came from this announcement led seamlessly into discussion of blame: whether it was the tabloids and their sensationalist storytelling, the Crown Prosecution Service for continuing to press charges, or the cruelty of a homogenous, faceless group of social media trolls who had pushed this nation’s sweetheart to such a sad decision. Either way, the responsibility of the tragedy could (and apparently should) be pinned on someone.
It’s news to no one that the British tabloids are held to loose standards regarding their treatment of individuals (you only have to look at Meghan Markle’s struggle with the press after marrying into the most beloved family in the country to see this). The fact that The Sun after Caroline’s death deleted so many of their past articles about her rightly outraged people as it showed acknowledgment of how unpleasantly they had treated her. Their subsequent outpourings of grief for the ‘Shining Star’ are hypocritical. The uncomfortable truth, though, is that the British public created the demand for salacious stories about celebrities’ lives – the media didn’t hound Caroline Flack in isolation, but with the enthusiastic and financial support of its readership.
So as The Sun frantically deletes their past articles about her but #bekind trends on Twitter, the question rises again: what needs to change to stop this from happening again?
On a positive note, attempts at change are being made in this department: over 800,000 people have signed an online petition for ‘Caroline’s Law’, aiming to introduce a law stopping the media from acting ‘with impunity’ when documenting and sensationalising celebrity stories to the ‘catastrophic detriment of the individuals’ mental welfare’.
Crucially, a lot of the hate and abuse targeted at Flack came from social media, not the press. While the press has certain limitations imposed upon it, social media providers allow their users free reign to publicise their thoughts with essentially no consequences – how long did it take for Katie Hopkins to have her Twitter taken down? Too long.
In the past few months Caroline Flack has had to undergo a ‘trial by social media’ whereby the British public scrutinised her based on the limited information on her arrest: the charity Fathers 4 Justice branded her a ‘domestic abuser’ and she received a lot of hate and trolling by other social media users calling for her to be ‘cancelled’ and jailed.
Domestic abuse of men by women is a huge deal – it’s traditionally not been taken seriously in society or in the judicial system. The CPS was right to continue to press charges and Caroline Flack may well have been found guilty of common assault, in which case I would have joined the scores of others hoping for fair consequences and support for her boyfriend, Lewis Burton. However, the freedom of the internet undermines the principle of ‘innocent before proven guilty’ and saw Caroline Flack convicted in the public mind months before her trial. If there weren’t already enough precedents to show us that this does not work (significantly the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard catastrophe), new information has come to light after her death which suggests the blood that was reportedly her boyfriend’s, was hers.
So we didn’t know as much as we thought. Jumping to false conclusions – potentially unfairly – and the targeted hate that came as a result has had a terrible consequence.
While Caroline Flack is a famous face and her death has sent shockwaves across the country, the reality is that social media trolling is far more widespread and not limited to celebrities: for instance, a YouGov poll of 2,034 people published by The Independent in 2019 declared that 23% of UK adults reported being cyberbullied in some capacity (rising to 55% for 18-24-year olds). Many teenage suicides in recent years have also been linked to social media abuse.
Over the past few years we have seen many comments and pleas from celebrities and mental health organisations calling for kindness online and trying to bring awareness to the devastation that trolling and cyberbullying can do. We’ve seen more of this in the past few days as #bekind trended on Twitter and celebrities like Laura Whitmore and Little Mix implored social media users to choose their words carefully. Unfortunately, calls for online kindness have historically failed because there is no accountability for those who bully online. We don’t ask the mainstream media to be kind, we implement legislation to prevent fake news and incitement to hatred; the same should be done on social media.
The 2019 Online Harms White Paper is a government attempt to regulate the UK’s online activity to make it a safer environment for everyone. It is faulty and vague and slow to be implemented…but it’s a start.
It’s not useful to direct all our efforts towards placing blame for the tragedy of Caroline Flack’s death, even though we can see the negative effect of the mainstream media and social media taking its toll on her at the end of her life. What is needed is better online legislation to stop the spread of hate. Until that happens, #bekind is a lovely initiative – it’s just not very convincing. So instead of remembering to practice kindness only while the hashtag is trending on Twitter, let’s try to stay kind for as long as possible before we lose more people to online abuse.
Artwork by Danni Pollock.