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

allure.com

"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

Telegraph

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

teenvogue.com

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

LA Times

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

buzzfeed.com

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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CULTURE

This Content Is Dangerous: Trauma in the Age of YouTube

Digital space is both the crime scene and respite.

Remember when a great concern of the zeitgeist was whether playing violent video games would encourage violent behavior?

For over 50 years, intense research was dedicated to deciphering whether violence in the media can predispose viewers to violent behaviors. The 2019 answer (despite people like Trump falsely clinging to the outdated debate) is no; in fact, violent media is more likely to cause crippling trauma than indoctrinate you.

This week, The Verge's Casey Newton recounted interviews with 100 moderators of "violent extremism" on YouTube and Google. Based on testimonies of American-based employees (nevermind the small army of "cleaners" that tech companies amass overseas to exploit cheap labor), the litany of moderators' documented mental health issues range from anxiety and depression to insomnia and other intense PTSD symptoms. And it's no secret to the managers at Google and YouTube. Those who deem themselves to be "the lucky ones" are granted paid leave to address the mental health concerns that have regularly arisen among moderators who are expected to spend full work days viewing footage of child abuse (of both physical and sexual nature), beheadings, mass shootings, and other forms of extreme violence.

The banned content is divided into queues, reports The Verge. From copyright issues, hate speech, and harassment to violent extremism (VE) and adult sexual content, hundreds of moderators are contracted either in-house or through outside companies like an Austin-based outfit called Accenture. Many are immigrants who jumped at the opportunity to work for a major media company like Google. "When we migrated to the USA, our college degrees were not recognized," says a man identified as Michael. "So we just started doing anything. We needed to start working and making money."

Considering there are videos with disturbing content under the guise of Peppa Pig clips in order to slip into kid-friendly digital spaces, moderators do feel a sense of social responsibility and satisfaction for removing dangerous and inappropriate content from the Internet. But, of course, the company's bottom lines don't prioritize a safer digital space, but rather capital and ad revenue. Similar to Amazon's notorious workers' rights abuses, Google has imposed increasingly inhumane and bizarre restrictions on their moderators, from increasing their quotas to banning cell phones and then pens and paper from the floor and limiting time for bathroom breaks. "They treat us very bad," Michael adds. "There's so many ways to abuse you if you're not doing what they like." Michael works for Accenture, where the average pay is $18.50 or about $37,000 a year, but an in-house moderator for Google, a woman identified as Daisy, described her full-time position in the California headquarters as ideal on paper. She earned about $75,000 a year with good benefits, not including a grant of Google stock valuing about $15,000. Ultimately, she left the job with long-lasting PTSD symptoms, because, she said, "Your entire day is looking at bodies on the floor of a theater. Your neurons are just not working the way they usually would. It slows everything down."

Specifically, a moderator's job is to view at least 5 hours of content every day; that's five hours of watching mass shootings, hate speech and harassment, graphic crimes against children as young as three years old, and images of dead bodies as the result of domestic and foreign terrorism (such as ISIS or a man shooting his girlfriend on camera). "You never know when you're going to see the thing you can't unsee until you see it," Newton concludes from her 100 interviews. Some moderators suffered severe mental health effects after a few weeks, while others endured years before they were forced to take leave, quit, or hospitalize themselves.

social media danger "Virus" by Carolina Rodriguez Fuenmayor

Secondhand Trauma

"Every gunshot, every death, he experiences as if it might be real," Newton writes about one moderator's trauma. And that's what it is: trauma in the age of YouTube. While the human condition has been documented to bend under the weight of atrocities since ancient civilizations' records of soldiers committing suicide, the term "posttraumatic stress disorder" was only acknowledged in the 1970s amidst the domestic fallout of the Vietnam War.

Today, studies estimate that 8 million Americans aged 18 and over display symptoms of PTSD, which is about 3.6% of the U.S. adult population. Furthermore, 67% of individuals "exposed to mass violence have been shown to develop PTSD, a higher rate than those exposed to natural disasters or other types of traumatic events," according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. And the more traumatic events one is exposed to, the higher the risk of developing PTSD symptoms.

When it comes to "secondary" trauma, experiencing mental and emotional distress from exposure to another's experience is generally associated with therapists and social workers. The contagion of secondhand trauma was already known before YouTube began in 2005, and social scientists across the board have concluded that "vicarious traumatization," "secondary traumatic stress (STS)," or "indirect trauma" is a real, clinical effect from graphic media in the news cycle. One study found, in reference to press coverage of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, "Unlike direct exposure to a collective trauma, which can end when the acute phase of the event is over, media exposure keeps the acute stressor active and alive in one's mind. In so doing, repeated media exposure may contribute to the development of trauma-related disorders by prolonging or exacerbating acute trauma-related symptoms."

In the age of increasingly pervasive media coverage and exposure to all varieties of human behavior, secondary trauma is inevitable. Yet, among the general public it's often unacknowledged, or even mocked. Newton recounted, "In therapy, Daisy learned that the declining productivity that frustrated her managers was not her fault. Her therapist had worked with other former content moderators and explained that people respond differently to repeated exposure to disturbing images. Some overeat and gain weight. Some exercise compulsively. Some, like Daisy, experience exhaustion and fatigue."

"All the evil of humanity, just raining in on you," Daisy told Newton. "That's what it felt like — like there was no escape. And then someone [her manager] told you, 'Well, you got to get back in there. Just keep on doing it.'"

social media danger "Sorrow and Fire" by Carolina Rodriguez Fuenmayor

Broadcasting Trauma

What constitutes "traumatic" media? The World Health Organization has gone so far as to define "violence" for the international community: "the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation." With the average U.S. adult spending over 11 hours a day "listening to, watching, reading or generally interacting with media," a digital user is exposed to real-world violence, global acts of terrorism, intimate partner violence (IPT), and casualties of freak accidents on a daily basis. While streaming entertainment occupies much of that time, radio reaches up to 92% on a weekly basis, while live TV "still accounts for a majority of an adult's media usage, with four hours and 46 minutes being spent with the platform daily," according to Nielson.

The problem with media is no longer as simple as violent video games. What streams in live news reports are increasing incidents of far-right terrorism (up 320% over the past five years) and increasing numbers of casualties. Meanwhile, shootings in the U.S. have intensified in frequency and fatalities, with gun deaths reaching the highest number per capita in more than 20 years (12 gun deaths per 100,000 people).With social media, you can view police shootouts live on Twitter, watch a mass shooter's livestream of his attack, see fatal police brutality caught on tape, or witness someone commit suicide on Facebook.

Who's policing this content? Instagram and Facebook are ostensibly cracking down on their community guidelines by demoting potentially injurious content—or debating before congress the limitations of both free speech and Mark Zuckerberg's latent humanity. As of November 2019, Twitter allows some sensitive material to be placed behind a content warning, provided it serves the purpose "to show what's happening in the world," but bans posts that "have the potential to normalize violence and cause distress to those who view them," including "gratuitous gore," "hateful imagery," "graphic violence" or adult sexual content. What happens after you hit the "report" button? At Google (and its property YouTube), it falls to the underpaid, overworked, and neglected moderators who are denied lunch breaks and vacation time if their queue has a heavy backlog of footage.

But what the Hell are we supposed to do about it? If we stumble across these images—even view some of them in full—do we become culpable for their existence?

We've been fretting over the human condition's ability to withstand traumatic images since the dawn of photography, particularly after photographs of the 20th century's World Wars exposed inhumane suffering to international audiences for the first time. "Photographs of mutilated bodies certainly can be used...to vivify the condemnation of war," writes Susan Sontag in 2003's Regarding the Pain of Others, "and may bring home, for a spell, a portion of its reality to those who have no experience of war at all." She also notes, "The photographs are a means of making 'real' (or 'more real') matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore." In contrast, photographer Ariella Azoulay challenges Sontag when she examines the fundamental power relations between viewer and object in her book, The Civil Contract of Photography, wherein she argues that a violent photograph demands that the viewer respond to the suffering depicted. If the role of a photograph is "creating the visual space for politics," then how much more does a moving image demand of us? Clicking the "report" button on Twitter? Writing to our congresspeople? Taking to the streets and rioting?

In her longform essay, Sontag wrote: "Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing 'we' can do–but who is that 'we'?–and nothing 'they' can do either– and who are 'they'–then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic."

social media danger "This Life Will Tear You Apart" by Carolina Rodriguez Fuenmayor

Ultimately, Google's failure to properly respect and support the mental health of its content moderators reflects an American problem of exceptionalism and subsequent drive to optimize at all costs. What drives the average American to filter the world through their screens for half of their day is stress over keeping up with trends and current events, being the most productive, and then escaping those anxieties in their downtime: Digital space–the realm of the image–is both the crime scene and the respite. The injustice calling us to action—whether in the form of boycotts or Twitter rants—is the fact that media is being regulated by a small cohort of billion-dollar companies with little to no regard for actual human life. Governments expect tech companies to police their own services with no outside oversight, while Google, a company that made $136.22 billion in 2018, is "just now beginning to dabble in these minor, technology-based interventions, years after employees began to report diagnoses of PTSD to their managers," according to Newton.

"It sounds to me like this is not a you problem, this is a them problem," is what Daisy's therapist told her. "They are in charge of this. They created this job. They should be able to … put resources into making this job, which is never going to be easy — but at least minimize these effects as much as possible." As of this week, they're putting (minimal) effort into that. Google researchers are experimenting with using technological tools to ease moderators' emotional and mental distress from watching the Internet's most violent and abusive acts on a daily basis: They're thinking of blurring out faces, editing videos into black and white, or changing the color of blood to green–which is fitting: blood the color of money.