And how they're fighting back.
It's easy to forget that most social media accounts we interact with have actual faces behind the screen names.
(Of course, bots exist, but they're still relatively rare...or so we think).
The Internet is a reflection of the real world, and a great deal of human interaction in reality is defined by power imbalances, cruelty, and bullying. Naturally, the Internet has its fair share of bullying as well. But social media—particularly Instagram and Twitter—allows anonymous trolls to crystallize half-ironic messages of loathing into short bursts of vitriol, which often catch on like wildfire and inspire copycats. The hive mind generated by social media and its toxic fanbases and trolling collectives have made vicious bullying an all-too-common occurrence online. As humans, we're psychologically wired to fixate on the few negative comments we receive rather than appreciating positive feedback and success, so a few negative comments can start a downward spiral—and a flurry of them can push people over the edge.
Celebrities are certainly not exempt from this. Fame has always been a double-edged sword, exposing stars to envy and hyper-scrutiny, a dangerous combination that often generates cruel bullying among people who are too scared to stand up for themselves in their real lives. Haunted by their own inadequacy, hateful and drunk on their ability to tweet-storm their way into a brief moment of virality that distracts them from the pain of their real lives, trolls have disrupted countless celebrity lives. Yet some celebrities have turned their experience with racism, lies, and bullying online into positive messages, attempting to use social media to spread kindness, connection, and love.
Ultimately, social media is what we make of it. The Internet is a reflection of the human psyche—often the darker impulses that lurk in the human psyche—but it can also be a way of manifesting our capacity to connect and love each other over impossible boundaries. Here are the stories of seven celebrities whose experiences with bullying nearly led them to death and inspired them to change their own and others' lives.
1. Billie Eilish
"It was ruining my life, once again," said Billie Eilish. She was talking about the hate she's received on Instagram in a recent BBC interview, promoting her Bond song "No Time to Die." "It's worse, it's way worse than it's ever been right now."
"I think you might see someone like a famous celebrity and you may think, 'Sticks and stones, nothing I say is going to be potent to them… but it's all very equal online," said her brother and producer Finneas.
Since she won five Grammys, 18-year-old Billie Eilish's profile has risen, and subsequently more trolls and bullies have emerged from under their bridges. "I stopped [social media] like two days ago. I've stopped reading comments fully... It's weird," the singer said. "The cooler the things you get to do, the more people hate you. Cancel culture is insane. The Internet is a bunch of trolls, and the problem is a lot of it is really funny. It's anything for a joke. People say anything to make people laugh. It's insane that I have ever been reading comments. I should've stopped long ago but the problem is I've always wanted to stay in touch with my fans, and people have ruined that for me and for them. That sucks. I still try to like fan posts. If I see fans anywhere I just want to talk to them. They're people, they're me. They're like friends of mine, but the Internet is ruining my life, so I turned it off."
While sometimes motivated by positive ideals, cancel culture is widely considered unproductive, even for the social justice causes it presumes to defend. A "canceled" person rarely actually loses their career or winds up on the street; if anything, cancelation is another form of easy trolling, a way of gaining illusory forms of control over issues that one has no ability to influence.
Even if Eilish is the latest victim of cancel culture, she probably won't be going anywhere anytime soon—but still, her decision to avoid social media comments is probably a wise one.
2. Zayn Malik
In 2012, Zayn spoke out about the bullying and racism he'd experienced online. "Nasty things [were said] like I'm a terrorist, and this and that," he told The Sun in 2012. "How can you justify that? How can you call me that and get away with it?" The former One Direction star was attacked for his Muslim faith, among other attributes, which likely didn't help his struggles with anxiety.
In the interview, Zayn clarified he was able to shake off the comments until his mom started seeing them. "You can say whatever you want about me, I'm not really bothered," he said. "But when it starts to upset people I care about or I hear about it from my mum, then that's a problem."
Zayn would prefer if people would confront him on the streets. "If that was said to me in the street or someone said it to my face or whatever then something could be done about it."
Though Zayn might've been acting tough, according to The Independent, cyberbullying can have genuine consequences. "Until a person experiences this kind of bullying, or someone close to them does, it can be difficult to fully understand how devastating it can be," said a spokesperson for the Cybersmile Foundation. "Quick judgments and harsh comments may seem like nothing to people sat behind their computers or on their mobiles, but online bullying follows people around the clock and can feel impossible to escape from, or imagine ending."
3. Jesy Nelson
Capital FM Jingle Bell Ball, London, UK - 09 Dec 2018 celebsnow.co.uk
In 2019, Lil Mix star Jesy Nelson opened up about how social media abuse nearly drove her to suicide. Nelson became "obsessed" with seeking out negative comments about herself and her appearance—and there were many—leading her down a spiral of depression and self-harm.
"It was like I wanted to hurt myself," she said. "The only way I can describe the pain is like constantly being heartbroken."
Things only began to improve when she finally deleted her social media accounts. "It wasn't until I deleted Twitter that everything changed for me and I slowly started to feel normal again," she said. "Don't get me wrong, I still have days when I feel sh*t in myself but instead of beating myself up about it and being miserable, I think: 'OK, I'm going to have my moment of being sad, and I'll be over it.' Before, I didn't let myself be sad."
Her perspective has changed over the years. "Back then I just thought everyone hated me," she said in a BBC documentary. "But no, actually, they're doing it because they feel bad about themselves. So now when I look at trolls being nasty, I feel a bit sorry for them. The only way I can understand it is that being nasty makes them feel better in themselves. I didn't have the mindset to think like that back then – I wish I did."
These comments touch on a truth about trolls and online bullies: Being vicious and mean online—especially when you're targeting someone's appearance or personality or attacking them for no reason—is an easy way to feel powerful without actually doing anything.
4. Millie Bobby Brown
As she rose to prominence as a young actress on Stranger Things, Millie Bobby Brown found herself slammed with cruel insults online.
It wasn't the first time she'd experienced bullying, though. "I was bullied at school back in England," she said during an interview with Glamour UK. "So it's extremely important for me to speak out against bullying." The bullying ultimately forced her to switch schools.
Flash forward to 2019. Having been named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people and the youngest ever UNICEF ambassador, Brown was forced to leave Twitter after experiencing a barrage of trolling. Fans created dozens of fake threads and fake memes that accused Brown of being homophobic to her fans, among other insults.
"Like millions of other girls around the world, I've also been bullied and harassed online," Brown said in a speech for UNICEF. "It's a terrifying feeling to look at your phone and see that messages people are sending you are filled with anger, hate and even threats. So many of these are strangers and anonymous trolls on the internet. Like all bullies, they gain their power by taking power away from others, by making them feel as scared and helpless as I did."
"I was lucky," she continued. "With the help of my friends, family and people around me, I was able to overcome these negative things and take my power back. But millions of children aren't so lucky. They're still struggling in the darkness. Bullying and online threats are never harmless, never just words. It puts children's mental health at risk. It causes stress and, in the most extreme cases, it can lead to self-harm, sickness and even suicide."
Her own experiences with bullying have inspired her to reach out to anyone who might be experiencing something similar. "Somewhere in the world today — right now — a teenage girl is being bullied online," she said. "She's scared. She's vulnerable. She feels alone," Millie said. "My message to her is this: You are not alone. There are people who care about you. There are people who will listen if you reach out for help. You have rights."
She concluded on a positive note. "I'm convinced that social media doesn't have to be a place of fear, bullying and harassment," she said. "It can bring people together. It can be a place of love and support."
5. Leslie Jones
Leslie Jones advises anyone who is experiencing bullying online to simply "Block the evil."
After she starred in a reboot of Ghostbusters, Jones experienced hate and racism on Twitter. At first, she attempted to respond directly to the attacks, screen-shotting and posting them and inspiring fans to start a counter-campaign, #LoveforLeslieJ. Still, it didn't change the fact that she was receiving direct attacks.
"When this stuff started happening...what was upsetting was that it was a bunch of people with evil as their goal," she said. "It wasn't like they were joining together to say some nice things to me. They were joining together in evil. To do something. That's what upsets me. I was like, 'Oh my God, they're believing in what they're sending to me.'
"But let me tell you something about me," she continued. "I don't let it live there. I know who I am and I know who they are."
She advised any recipients of bullying to step away from the screen, and to try to gain some perspective. "If you're getting bullied right now, please take a second to step back and go, 'This is not real ... this is not a reality,' because if those people saw you on the street they would not say none of that. Why are you scared of someone that's hiding behind a keyboard?" she asked, emphasizing that feeding the trolls isn't the answer.
"That's what they want. They want that attention," she said. "Blocking is my best friend. That's how I answer questions now. Block! Block them, and block them out of your brain. And please, please, you have to talk to yourself and you have to have a conversation with yourself and say, 'Hey, this is not real, this is evil.' Don't let it in your life."
6. Ariel Winter
The Modern Family starlet experienced extensive body-shaming and bullying online, particularly during her early years of fame. "It was also hard at first, when I wasn't really speaking out about things I believed in, when I was kind of just starting in the public eye, and I was really young, probably 11 or 12 that I started gaining recognition in that way, and having people start commenting on everything about me. I was a developed younger person ... They would see me, and even though I was a child, they'd talk about me and my body like I was an adult—or, you know, shame me for this or shame me for that—and it was really difficult," she told GMA.
"I spent a lot of years trying to figure out who I wanted to be, what I wanted to look like—if I did this would people stop...if I did this would people stop," she explained. "Over the years I kind of just learned there's nothing, with not even just body image, that you will be able to do to please everybody."
At one point, she began posting confessional and motivational posts online in response to all the bullying, trying to counter all the negativity with some inspiration. "The only person that you need to take into account is yourself because at the end of the day, it's just us," she wrote in one Instagram post. "At the end of the day, the opinion that matters most, that should be the most valuable one, is your own."
She also began posting transparent confessions about mental health, a cause that's extremely personal to her. "I've suffered from depression and anxiety in life, and I know so many people that also suffer from that, or suffer from similar things, but never talk about it," she explained in one Instagram notes-app confession.
Sometimes, though, speaking out isn't the answer, and the best strategy turned out to be cutting off the Internet entirely and spending time in the real world. In 2018, Winter quit Twitter because of the bullying she had continued to receive. "Ariel has taken a break from Twitter and engaging with commenters on her other platforms because of the constant negativity she experiences. She needs a moment to breathe and enjoy herself without judgement," a statement on her account read.
Since then, she's focused on prioritizing positive aspects of social media instead of focusing solely on negative comments. "As a society we do comment more on the negative and that comment really hit me and so now I'm really trying to follow that of like, doing what I actually feel, which is to be thankful for the support and actually show that and kind of try and bury the negative," she said.
Winter seems to be focusing on reshaping her mind so that she pays more attention to the positive aspects of her online and real worlds instead of the trolls trying to bring her down, which is an admirable quest, but it's hard to do when you're constantly receiving negative and distracting comments.
7. Kelly Marie Tran
Kelly Marie Tran Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
In an op-ed for the New York Times, Star Wars star Kelly Marie Tran wrote about her experience with online bullying—and how it reflects pre-existing structural forces in the real world.
"It wasn't their words, it's that I started to believe them," she wrote. "Their words seemed to confirm what growing up as a woman and a person of color already taught me: that I belonged in margins and spaces, valid only as a minor character in their lives and stories."
Tran, the first woman of color to hold a leading role in a Star Wars film, had steadfastly run a positive and encouraging Instagram account for years. It was filled with messages like, "I'm an incomplete, imperfect, broken mess, and I'm here to say that it's OKAY to be imperfect."
But apparently Tran experienced "months of harassment" thanks to Star Wars fans, who flooded her posts and online forums with racist slurs. She ultimately deleted her Instagram, and later published the Times op-ed.
"I had been brainwashed into believing that my existence was limited to the boundaries of another person's approval," she wrote. "I had been tricked into thinking that my body was not my own, that I was beautiful only if someone else believed it, regardless of my own opinion. I had been told and retold this by everyone: by the media, by Hollywood, by companies that profited from my insecurities, manipulating me so that I would buy their clothes, their makeup, their shoes, in order to fill a void that was perpetuated by them in the first place."
"I want to live in a world where children of color don't spend their entire adolescence wishing to be white. I want to live in a world where women are not subjected to scrutiny for their appearance, or their actions, or their general existence," she concluded. "I want to live in a world where people of all races, religions, socioeconomic classes, sexual orientations, gender identities and abilities are seen as what they have always been: human beings."
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