When Toxic Emotions Go Viral, Equanimity Can Save the Day

Jeffree Star channeled cool-headed equanimity to end a backstabbing online feud.

Posted May 21, 2019

Anatoli Styf/Shutterstock
Source: Anatoli Styf/Shutterstock

On May 19, YouTuber and vlog influencer, Jeffree Star, posted a 14-minute video that, in my secular opinion, exemplified equanimity and would make His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet proud. You might be asking, "What is equanimity?" I'd describe equanimity as "the ability to stay even-keeled, calm, cool-headed, and warm-hearted, especially in challenging situations." Equanimity is one of Four Sublime Attitudes from Buddha's teachings.

I’d never heard of Jeffree Star until last December, when I wrote a post, "Emotional Contagions Can Spread Like Wildfire via YouTube." That post reported on a study (Rosenbusch et al., 2018) which found that online viewers tend to mirror the emotions of vlogs posted by influencers on YouTube. While researching that post a few months ago, I discovered that Jeffree Star was one of the top five YouTube earners in 2018, raking in an estimated $18 million.

After watching a few of Star's videos, I became a fan of his free-spirit and genuine kindness when interacting with random strangers he encountered on the street or employees at a fast-food restaurant who wanted to take selfies. Yes. He's been snarky and had petty feuds. But overall, if the emotions of a YouTube personality are contagious, I catch a positive vibe from Jeffree Star.

That being said, in the past week, a backstabbing psychodrama unfolded on YouTube and other social media platforms between influencers in the so-called "beauty community" that has managed to make headlines in the national media. The initial feud was between Tati Westbrook and James Charles, but Jeffree Star (who is a megastar) got involved. And the toxic emotions and vitriol became a contagion that went viral.

The recent Tati Westbrook-James Charles incident could be viewed academically as "Exhibit A" of research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science and corroborates the findings of Hannes Rosenbusch and colleagues presented in their paper, "Multilevel Emotion Transfer on Youtube: Disentangling the Effects of Emotional Contagion and Homophily on Video Audiences." (2018)

Obviously, in the big picture, this beauty guru scandal is trivial in comparison to other current events—such as the US Congress being briefed today on escalating tensions with Iran. Nevertheless, if you spend time on the internet or visit social media platforms, you’ve probably been touched by the multiple tentacles of this YouTube soap opera.

Thankfully, there is good news: The muckraking appears to finally be over. And, more importantly, there are some positive takeaways. In a May 20 BuzzFeed post, "The James Charles And Tati Westbrook Drama Has Finally Ended And I Am Sister Shaking," Isha Bassi gives a timeline of how this wildfire ultimate got extinguished. As you probably inferred from the title and introduction to this post, I believe that Jeffree Star deserves credit for taking the high road and planting the seeds of equanimity, which turned the situation around. 

On May 19, Jeffree Star posted a contrite and refreshingly authentic video, "Never Doing This Again," in which he apologized for his actions and stated clearly: "It's time for a change and it starts NOW."

In this 14-minute video, Star makes some poignant observations. I've cued the video above to begin at the 9:30 mark. This section stood out to me because it offers valuable words of wisdom for all of us about "doing the right thing" on social media. Jeffree Star said:

"What I want you guys to understand is that when you have a voice and millions of followers. You need to use that in a positive light. And there are people, including myself who have maybe abused the power... Have used it in a wrong way... Have done things way too publicly... And today, this is done. It’s over. Because I don’t want anyone who is inspired by me—whether it’s a makeup artist or someone who doesn’t really feel like they belong—and they look up to me. I don’t want them to think that gossip, hate, and negativity is how you get popular. Or is how you grow in social media or get people to respect you. Because it’s not respectable at all. I’ve had to learn the hard way. And I want you guys to learn from my mistakes."

A few hours after Jeffree Star posted this video, Tati Westbrook followed suit by publicly apologizing to James Charles, promising to bury the hatchet, and deleting her infamous "Bye Sister..." YouTube video that sparked the feud and had over 52 million views on her channel.

At 8:31 PM on May 19, James Charles posted a tweet accepting both apologies. He said, "Thank you @jeffreestar & @glamlifeguru for your sentiments. I am on board to move on, will not speak about this further, but do hope to speak in the future when we’re all ready. This week was awful for all of us and I ask that the community focuses on positivity moving forward ❤️"

In my opinion, this resolution shows that when toxic emotions go viral, one germ of equanimity can become a positive contagion that breaks the vicious cycle of anger and negativity.

This morning, I decided to share some of the twists and turns of this social media fiasco with my 11-year-old daughter as a "teaching moment." We watched the end of this 14-minute Star video together over breakfast. I also took the opportunity to talk to my tween about the power of equanimity in real-life situations and on social media platforms.

While driving her to school, I asked my daughter to read a post I wrote in 2013, "4 Simple Ways to Replace Hostility with Equanimity," out loud to remind both of us what I said on this topic six years ago. For more equanimity tips from someone who practices Buddhism, please check out, "How to Cultivate Equanimity Regardless of Your Circumstances," by fellow blogger, Toni Bernhard

References

Hannes Rosenbusch, Anthony Evans, and Marcel Zeelenberg. “Multilevel Emotion Transfer on Youtube: Disentangling the Effects of Emotional Contagion and Homophily on Video Audiences” Social Psychological and Personality Science (First published online: December 27, 2018) DOI: 10.1177/1948550618820309

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