Why Are Celebrities Targets for Haters?
A recent celebrity suicide shines light on the dangers of cancel culture.
Posted Feb 20, 2020
The suicide of U.K. reality TV celebrity Caroline Flack has put a spotlight on the range and power of negative media. Flack’s case is both tragic and complicated, but a lot of blame is being leveled at media, from tabloids to haters and shamers. Whether or not public humiliation was to blame in this case, the emerging and unhealthy acceptance of public “calling out,” name-calling and “canceling” people across social and public media channels can have devastating results—celebrity or not.
Celebrities get a lot of media attention—it goes with the territory since celebrity by definition requires widespread public awareness of an individual. Celebrity is social validation on a large scale. Popularity confers a level of authority through social proof—we assume that someone that is admired by many must be worth paying attention to.
Before you pine for millions of followers, however, remember that social media attention, as I have written in the past, is not guaranteed to be positive. Public means all kinds of public, not just supportive, well-meaning fans.
Humans are social animals. Social connection is essential to our mental and physical wellbeing. Social feedback is one of the ways we navigate our environments. Everyone, celebrity or not, wants to be liked. This need for social validation can run into problems with social media because our brains haven’t evolved as fast as technology. We may be able to scroll through Instagram on a mobile phone, but our brains might as well be back on the Savannah. The bulk of our physical and mental evolution happened during the hundreds of thousands of years prior to the first civilizations; the internet era of the last twenty years is less than a blink of an eye in the big picture of human evolution. This leaves the question of how well our minds are equipped and/or able to adapt to the rapid technological changes that are happening in our lives.
Fame or celebrity can make those who achieve it targets for bullies and haters. Caroline Flack was a victim of media attacks in recent months across both social media and in the UK Tabloids. While many celebrities have been similarly dogged and abused, being a target of cyberbullying is not restricted to the famous. And let’s face it, irresponsible news reporting intended to abuse and shame is just cyberbullying with a masthead. It doesn’t diminish the damage and humiliation from widely-spread, sensationalized and often exaggerated information.
Countless “regular people” have been victimized publicly and suffered tragic consequences. In a meta-analysis looking at research on teens and suicide, van Geel, Vedder, and Tanilon (2014) found that being victimized by peers was a risk factor for suicidal ideation and attempts and that cyberbullying was more strongly related to suicide than traditional bullying. Researchers are increasingly looking at the aftermath of cyberbullying in terms of PTSD.
Whether you call them bullies or haters, the result is the same. Bullying is aggressive behavior that is repetitive, intentional, and personal. Unlike face-to-face bullying, social media lets bullies be anonymous, removed from direct contact. They may imagine the impact of their bullying and watch for public signs of it, but they are distanced from the victim’s actual experience. Anonymity encourages behavior beyond what someone would do in person. In fact, research suggests that a meaningful proportion of young people who bully online do not do it when they are face-to-face (Twyman, Saylor, Taylor, & Comeaux, 2010).
The “cancel culture,” however, implicitly creates and sanctifies groups of haters with an accompanying sense of belonging and ability to rationalize that “it’s okay because others are doing it.” In fan groups, we often see mass bullying “in defense” of an admired celebrity. Fans perceive their bad behavior as a tribute that demonstrates their loyalty to an admired celebrity. History has repeatedly shown that slaying perceived dragons with the shield of group affiliation makes people less likely to follow normal restraints and inhibitions. And there’s a double pay-off: 1) demonstrating group membership, and 2) the emotional frisson of behaving badly.
Sadly, social media makes it easy for haters to gain critical mass, forming a relentless cybermob spewing vitriol that can undermine the victim’s self-image and worth. Social media platforms are public, easy to access. People—even celebrities—can be reached through mentions and hashtags, and the interaction is visible to a larger audience, encouraging similarly needy others to join in and experience whatever thrill they get from anonymous meanness.
While “quitting” social media seems a logical solution, it also creates a significant trade-off. Teens’ social life and social connectivity often center on social media communication. Celebrities often rely on social media as a valuable way to maintain their celebrity and be in touch with fans. The motivations for the haters are irrelevant for anyone on the receiving end of verbal assault or the humiliation of false content. It’s cold comfort to know that hateful content is a reflection of the sender’s anger, jealousy, sense of powerlessness, obsessive tendencies, lack of empathy, or an attempt to increase their own sense of social power by diminishing another.
Maintaining equilibrium in the face of attack takes rational thought and analysis, not an emotional response. However, our most instinctive behaviors when under attack is fight, flight, or freeze. These are reactions that divert energy from the brain to the extremities in case we need to run or fight. Therefore, at the time when we most need the ability to self-regulate and rationally step back, we are in cognitive-crisis mode, receiving a gut punch.
Another important reason we take all this hatefulness so hard is the built-in negativity bias that is also part of our survival mechanism. We have a tendency to focus attention on bad news. This isn’t a shortage of self-esteem or the sign of a pessimist (although those can make it worse). Evolution has shaped our brains to be acutely sensitive to potential dangers. An attack is much more critical to our immediate survival than a compliment. Anything that triggers anger or fear activates an automatic response that captures our attention. Psychologist John Gottman argues that a good relationship needs about five positive actions to every one negative to maintain a good relationship because of our tendency to amplify the negative.
Celebrities may be among those particularly vulnerable. While the need to be liked is shared by us all, public adoration and attention are part of the reward of fame and perceived as an indicator of success with monetizable value. Celebrities' social media reach can number in the millions—that's a lot of people who could turn on you. For example, Caroline Flack had over 2.5 million followers on Instagram. Justin Bieber reportedly has over 100 million. It’s no wonder that Bieber and a number of other celebrities such as Millie Bobby Brown, Leslie Jones, Daisy Ridley, and Selena Gomez have taken social media breaks or deleted accounts to halt the emotional burden of haters. When you have a large number of followers, even a small percentage of haters create an avalanche of negative comments that could trigger a sense of shame, unworthiness, and rejection even in the most stalwart.
Cyberbullying creates roles: the bully, the target, the bystander, and the defender. But even having defenders does not offset the negative emotions of hurtful content. We tend to ruminate on the worst, especially when we're sensitive, seeking approval, or already depressed. Depression can amplify our built-in negativity bias making us even more hyper-reactive to negative emotion.
For social media users, this underscores the need to recognize both the up and downside of a public presence and establish boundaries early on. Social media platforms are ill-equipped to police haters. The sheer range of what constitutes hateful messaging makes that untenable except in the most blatant cases. No one is watching out for us but ourselves. While some celebrities are able to reframe hate into motivation by taking negative comments as a sign of success, many more have strategies to avoid them altogether.
Celebrity or not, however, every social media user should figure out how to protect their emotional health and wellbeing. Outpouring such as that surrounding Caroline Flack’s death will hopefully raise awareness so that we start to become less tolerant of verbal abuse. A social norm is a behavior that is accepted and tolerated. We have to put our oar in the water. We have to quit tolerating bad behavior. We need to step up in support when we see any kind of cyberbullying happening, ask for help, notify platforms, and urge action, increasing the number of voices counteracting the haters.
Twyman, K., Saylor, C., Taylor, L. A., & Comeaux, C. (2010). Comparing children and adolescents engaged in cyberbullying to matched peers. Cyberpsychology, behavior, and social networking, 13(2), 195-199.
van Geel M, Vedder P, Tanilon J. Relationship Between Peer Victimization, Cyberbullying, and Suicide in Children and Adolescents: A Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatr. 2014;168(5):435–442. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.4143