“In a world where you can be anything, be kind” – pre-2019, I would have rolled my eyes at this quote. It’s a bit sickly sweet – type of thing you’d see on a fridge magnet. But now, it has an echoing poignance, as it is famously one of the last things presenter and model, Caroline Flack wrote on her Instagram before she lost her mental health battle. 

I’m not going to go into the whys or the story behind Caroline Flack in this blog, but instead I wanted to reflect on Caroline Flack and her last words, as a symbol of the toxic nature of social media, its ability to enable and empower utter relentless hatred and to reflect on what ethical social media could look like. 

Caroline was hounded for the last year of her life, the world stage saw her downfall and mistakes and her death was a shock to most, but that final act, reminded us all of something that had been forgotten – Caroline was human. She wasn’t evil – she was a good, kind person, that had many faults and struggles – but she was a good person, that did a bad thing. And I genuinely believe that, but social media and the snowball effect, enabled her demonisation and her whole life on trial. 

As a social media professional, I love social media! It’s ability to connect, to teach, to inform and yet, I’ve found myself over the last few years, repeatedly seeing the dark side and realising that society has actually created something we have no idea how to control or regulate. It doesn’t take long when scrolling to stumble across someone ranting and raving, spewing hate and being the least woke version of humanity possible. And we can continue to do this 24/7.

The #BeKind movement was certainly a moment, and most people took a step back to reflect on their online behaviour, I certainly did. I made a pledge to comment positively on people’s feeds – to tell artists, creatives, businesses, friends – when I liked something they’d done, was proud of them, missed them, recommended them…. And if I did feel the urge to talk negatively about an experience with a business, I took a step back and thought firstly, I’m digitally speaking to another human being and then moved on to questions like…..is this necessary? Is what I’m about to say going to make me feel good tomorrow? Is this just my emotions? In a way, Caroline’s death made me think about the digital communities I wanted to build, how I wanted to represent myself, how my values interact with my online behaviour and what I won’t stand for on my feed. 

I saw first-hand online the news break of the now infamous Will Smith and Chris Rock incident (I had insomnia!) and I watched as it unfolded, gathered traction, everyone had an opinion, was arm-chair diagnosing mental illnesses, commenting hate on both Will and Chris’s social media and I couldn’t help but think…… is it necessary? Just because you can say it, do you have to? Whatever your opinion of the Will and Chris situation, I sat and watched the footage and I saw two human beings make mistakes in front of the world, that will now haunt them for the rest of their lives. Two good people who did two bad things; I could see the emotion in both their eyes – I felt sad and I felt empathy. Empathy (beyond toxic positivity) is something that is RARE to see and find on social media. 

Social media is a powerful marketing tool – there is no doubt. Right now, on social media, you see the very best and the very worst of humanity. The very worst is enabled to fester and grown, because social media dehumanises people, creates a disconnect behind a screen and folks forget that they are interacting with real life people behind the accounts. Ranting, raving, swearing, threats, insults and often. those not so woke beliefs and prejudices have a home and people around them digitally, that normalise what they are saying and cheerlead it. 

Everyday good people, with families and friends, can and do become internet trolls. I often think back to the man with his family in the pub, who trolled me and my appearance and going up to him, and he looked very normal. He didn’t look like some weirdo on the internet, that for some reason, even though we’d never met or interacted, seemed to love having a glass of wine on a Friday evening whilst saying such horrible to me digitally. And he was mortified when he saw me, when I brought it up and he never messaged me again – I told him to do better for his daughter; it’s not ok to grow up with incel vibes at home. 

The whole thing blows my mind – as it takes actual effort to troll. Folks watch a movie and decide to go on Twitter, to tell the actress something like “you were crap!”, or “you look fat”, or “I don’t like you”. Unkind words for no real reason or purpose.  I’ve seen celebrities reply before to their hate comments and suddenly people are surprised – “I didn’t think you’d reply…” whether it is the celebrity or their team looking after their account, the same point stands…..it is a person. A person who is having to go through and read so so so much unnecessary hate; which is emotionally exhausting and senseless. 

If we take this into the business arena, the same principles stand – social media is an amazing tool and also, holds a business not behaving in the most ethical way, to account. But the way, some folks use social when speaking to businesses and brands, is not ok. Every week, I see reviews on social from disgruntled customers disproportionately raging at a business. I always think – have you addressed this directly with the business off social media? Do you realise the impact of putting a small business on blast on social media for a mistake? Is it really that important? Instead, make the point to the business, give constructive feedback and be kind….. give them a break! Your ranting at a person….often a person just doing their job and who is not paid to take hate and go through horrible comments. 

I have my own social media platform for my business – and not a week goes by without me getting angry messages (usually because I’ve championed a female or queer artist and apparently that means I have an “agenda” and not just being a decent human being), comments about my appearance, comments from men who are very upset at my “wokeness” as a “fat ugly liberal snowflake” or just messages of swearing. And 9/10 times…. It’s fine. I laugh and move on – my social media isn’t controversial, I champion arts and creatives in the North, but that makes some folks cross. Other times, when I’ve had a bad day or my mental health isn’t great….. those comments or messages are icing on the cake. I’ve cried over comments before, I’ve not slept, I’ve carried the really horrible ones around for days and I’ve let it knock my self-confidence. Sounds silly to admit, but it does get to you, and I think, it’s because folks forget, that I am a person too. 

I show my friends or other folks these messages and many are shocked – but those that run business accounts, nod and look knowingly. And I’m left, sat thinking….. but how is this acceptable?! It feels so abhorrent. I don’t know what the answer is here… but it has got me thinking about ethical social media and what that might look like. 

May be a combination of stricter regulation and identity proofing, alongside teaching folks how to use social media appropriately. And that requires people exploring and figuring out, what individually it means to use social media ethically? What have a digital footprint actually means – i.e. the comments and things you write are traceable and remain out there forever! What it means as a collective society and the social contracts that exist in digital communities – what behaviours do we and don’t we allow? What it means legally – what can our law makers do to protect people? Can our laws evolve to incorporate things like “digital assault”? What can businesses put in place to protect their staff from digital hate and what support should be available to those whose personal accounts are targeted? Or the social media team, who have to relentlessly go through hate comments? And, most importantly….. what are the social media channels doing themselves? What regulation is in place? Can the algorithm help?

We haven’t got the balance right at the moment – I’m not about censorship, but freedom of speech is not freedom to hate and social media, prioritises freedom to hate. And just because you can say something, doesn’t mean you should. And above all else….we’re in the midst of a pandemic and several once in a life time events, if there was ever a time to be kind and to connect together on our own humanity…it is now. Be kind. Play nice. 

I’m interested in hearing our NIBE community thoughts on this topic? What’s your perspective? What do you think might bring about positive digital change? What does using “ethical social media” look like? 

Rachel Horton – The Culture Vulture and Director, NIBE