Entertainment

You Can't Fix Online Troll Culture Until You Fix Reality TV

The people managing social media accounts for big shows say that nothing can be done until the format itself changes.
April 28, 2021, 8:00am
Collage of reality TV contestants who have been trolled: Love Island ​contestant Amy Hart, ​The Circle ​winner Manrika Khaira​ and ​RuPaul's Drag Race UK ​queen Sister Sister
Love Island contestant Amy Hart, The Circle winner Manrika Khaira and RuPaul's Drag Race UK queen Sister Sister have all been trolled online. Photo: ITV, Channel 4 and BBC Three

Midway through the third series of Channel 4’s reality gameshow The Circle, a plea was tweeted from the program’s official account. As contestant Manrika Khaira received death threats for what many viewers perceived as villainous behaviour, The Circle’s social media team sprang into action. “Please remember that #TheCircle is a game show,” they tweeted on the 29th of March, “& the Players are real people who are playing an incredible game.” 

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In 2018 and 2019, two former Love Island contestants died by suicide, and the death of host Caroline Flack in 2020 ignited a #BeKind campaign that warned social media users about the impact of their words. As a nation, we are arguably more aware than ever of the dangers surrounding the online abuse of reality TV stars. And yet, the cruelty continues. 

Does The Circle’s tweet show that the onus has shifted onto social media managers to mitigate contestant abuse? A month earlier, the Drag Race UK Twitter account posted a similar tweet about contestant Sister Sister, asking viewers to “remember that behind all the fierceness… there is a human being”. But is it enough for a show’s social team to remind the audience that contestants are “real people”? Is it even possible to create a better online atmosphere around reality TV while the format continues to serve up caricatured heroes and villains? 

After The Circle’s finale, contestants banded together to create the campaign #ThinkB4UPost. Like #BeKind before it, the hashtag hopes to prevent toxic behaviour. Yet Amy Hart, a contestant on Love Island series five, says very little changed after the #BeKind campaign. 

“It stayed the same, one hundred percent,” Hart, 28, says. When she first left Love Island, Hart checked Twitter after hearing she was trending on the site. “I typed in ‘Amy Hart’ and the first thing that came up was ‘Amy Hart ugly.’ And it was like 180 tweets.” 

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Like The Circle’s Khaira, Hart has also received death threats – one person threatened to cut her car’s brakes. Hart says abuse is most common in Instagram DMs; she has blocked certain words from appearing in her Instagram comment section (“ugly” and “fat” are blocked, as is “eyelashes” after Hart posted a picture where one of her false eyelashes was slightly coming off). 

“I don’t know what the answer is,” Hart says of mitigating abuse. Most of hers comes from middle-aged women and children; she has replied to abusers who have then profusely apologised, but many more have doubled down. Recently, she told a girl who sent a cruel message to “chill out”.

“A couple nights later, it popped up that she’d sent me some voice messages… She’s like, ‘First of all, I don’t like you saying ‘chill out’ because you don’t know me’,” Hart explains. “And I’m like, ‘But you don’t know me!’” Hart’s friend listened to the rest of the messages, which he described as “horrible”. “A year ago, I was in such a low place, if I’d received those, I don’t know what I would have done,” Hart says. 

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When I reach out to people who’ve sent abusive tweets to reality contestants, strange things occur. A handful of people don’t respond but delete the tweets in question, seemingly feeling some kind of shame. One man who expressed a wish that contestant would “kys” (an initialism for “kill yourself”) tells me over DM that it “certainly wasn’t hate against [the contestant] per se” but just a response to their actions on the show. He also added that he’s “not one for that type of behaviour”, demonstrating a certain level of disconnect. One individual who expressed a desire to drown a contestant says they were at school at the time and would never tweet anything like that now. 

Isobel*, a young woman in the South of England, is the only person willing to answer a few questions over DM. A few years ago, she tweeted that a Love Island contestant was an “attention-seeking cunt”. 

“At the time of tweeting that I was obviously very young and silly,” she says, explaining that she was 19 and has grown up considerably since. Isobel says she didn’t realise that celebrities read tweets about themselves until she watched the documentary Jesy Nelson: Odd One Out (about the cyberbullying of the Little Mix star). After experiencing mental health issues herself, Isobel realised the impact of words online and is now remorseful.

I ask Isobel if there’s anything that might have prevented her behaviour at the time. “No, I don’t think there was anything that would have stopped me at the time,” she says, “My mum and dad divorced when I was five and it put a lot of anger in me. I think I just used to take it out on people I didn’t know on social media as a coping mechanism.” 

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Hart’s experiences and Isobel’s candour demonstrate that the toxic online landscape is complicated. It is unclear whether The Circle’s tweet was part of a planned strategy or simply a quick message – Channel 4 said no one was available for comment, and BBC Three were unable to find someone to speak about the Drag Race tweet. 

Former social media managers can shed light on how teams navigate abusive social media behaviour. A decade ago, Francesca* helped run the social accounts for a long-running reality TV behemoth. She says she was encouraged to keep things “playful” and her team were also told to avoid posting about a contestant if they were already facing abuse. 

Despite this duty of care, Francesca is still troubled by her former job. “It was meme-ifying people, basically,” she says. “The moment you start heightening and sensationalising people, then they’re no longer people. They’re these cartoon characters and those watching feel they can respond however they want to.”

Another former social media manager – who promoted BBC reality contests – had more encouraging experiences. Rebecca* says she was told not to post anything that would attract cruelty, such as gifs of contestants pulling faces, and that producers checked tweets. If a contestant expressed a desire not to be featured on social media, their wishes were respected. “They are just more cautious generally,” Rebecca says of the BBC. 

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Reflecting on her role, Francesca says she realised just “how much misdirected emotion is out there” and “the anger in the general public”. When we discuss the idea of social media managers instructing audiences to be kind, she says it can feel “tokenistic”. 

“It often feels like the desire to have a duty of care is an uphill battle with the main product,” she says, “which is that the show is edited in a certain way.” 

While we all have to take responsibility for our individual actions online, Whitney Phillips, a communications professor from Syracuse University in New York, and author You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape, says we can’t ignore the wider context of abuse. 

“Producers set people up, they create these permission structures for really fetishising, flattening, dehumanising kinds of responses. But then when there’s a shitstorm around their show, then suddenly, they’re like, ‘No, actually, everybody be nice’,” Phillips says. 

During our conversation, Hart points out that Love Island’s “Twitter challenge” rewards bad behaviour by featuring controversial tweets within the show (the challenge was not part of the latest series). Former The Circle winner Alex Hobern says that being kept up until 4AM filming was an exhausting experience that led to more emotional scenes. The series one contestant argues that producers should feel a responsibility to respond to social media backlash when editing a show by “toning down” a contestant’s villainous side or simply “giving them a bit of a break” for an episode or two. 

“Do you know what can negate social media abuse?” he says. “Editing.” 

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Phillips notes that producers “put ideas in the audience’s head about who is bad and deserves rebuke, condemnation and mockery” – “villain edits” are a long-documented phenomenon in the industry. She adds that social media networks also exacerbate abuse by flattening people, rewarding emotive posts, and allowing messages to spread rapidly without context: “Many people don’t understand the extent to which they are being set up to engage unethically or to not have to think about ethical consequences by their networks, by the attention economy.”

So is it even possible for social media managers to prevent online abuse while the structure of reality TV stays the same? If The Circle team really wanted to remind the audience that the show is just a game, why did they choose to say this on Twitter and not in the program itself? 

“The thing is, if they edited it so there wasn’t any light and shade in it, everyone would say it was boring, and nobody would watch it,” Hart says of reality shows. Of signing up to be on TV: “I do think you know that you’ve sort of sold your soul to the devil.” 

Phillips says it all comes down to profit – drama drives interest; interest equals money. “You’re never going to solve this by wagging your finger at individuals and telling them to behave better; what we need to be doing is compelling the structures to change,” she says. “Once the structures change, the behaviours will change.” 

*Names have been changed 

@ameliargh