Cyber-Bashing: Do Famous People “Deserve It?”

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[quote]If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.[/quote]

Recently, one of my best friends was crowned winner of a beauty pageant that will allow her to participate in the Miss Universe competition. It was a very exciting time for her, and after the coronation, she was on cloud nine –– or so one would have thought. In reality, simultaneous with every press piece announcing her win, came wave after wave of criticism from snarky “netizens.” It was shocking and infuriating for me to read unfounded, vitriolic posts about my dear friend from complete strangers, and I could only imagine how they made her feel.

“It’s just been hard these couple of days,” she said to me wearily. I tried to lighten her up, reminding her that the people criticizing her probably didn’t actually hate her or mean what they said, but were discontent with their own lives, and she was the unfortunate collateral damage of their poor coping methods.  “They’re just bitter that their own lives suck,” I reassured her.

“I know. It’s okay, I’m…fine.” She paused and collected herself, her tone changing to a very matter-of-fact one. “Just gotta stop reading stupid shit. I don’t care what they say!”

But not caring” is something that is much more easily said than done, and for the first time, I realized just how difficult it is. Imagine reading judgement of you from strangers by the tens and hundreds every time you see your name somewhere online.  Imagine being helpless in clarifying misconceptions and unable to defend yourself.  Imagine knowing that all your friends and family can see those comments, too.  And then imagine having to pretend none of it gets to you at all –– sound glamorous?

Though I have never understood the appeal in cyber-bashing celebrities, I have never really questioned that particular “free speech” exercise, either — it just always felt so far away. Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, and Britney Spears have “real” feelings? No way! But in a flash, I wanted to ask all the malicious commenters whether they could say those things to her face, without hiding behind the comfortable shield of anonymity.

While many, such as Facebook’s Randi Zuckerberg, point to online anonymity as the primary cause of cyber-bullying (though online anonymity probably won’t be around for much longer), a study conducted by Georgia State University identifies internally motivated reasons as the most powerful motivation for slandering others on the web.

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Though anonymity can contribute, the primary disinhibitor at play here is a phenomenon known as the online disinhibition effect: when perpetrators are “physically and emotionally removed from their victims…and they [do] not experience the impact of their actions.” Considering a whopping 93% of our communication relies on nonverbal body language –– conspicuously absent in digital communication –– it is hardly surprising that the nonverbal cues that might trigger compassion or a basic feeling of humanity may be defunct or absent via the internet.

Speaking of humanity and compassion, what troubles me most here is that while we as a society condemn and punish those who cyber-bully their peers, we seem to have no problem with the legions of those who insult famous strangers online. Sure, those in the public eye should prepare themselves for reasonable criticism as it pertains to their professions, but “fame” doesn’t makes a person fair game for anyone to say anything to or about them (maybe this is why Lady Gaga named her second album, after her catapult to international stardom, The Fame Monster –– fame can really be a monster).

My rule of thumb is, if you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it online. Talking to people face-to-face may be a thing of the past, but I think we could still follow some old fashioned etiquette rules: “do onto others as you would have done unto yourself,” and “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

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What do you think of cyber-bashing public figures? Do you think cyber-bashing celebrities is comparable to or different than adolescents cyber-bullying each other? How do you think the online forum has changed the way we socialize and what we consider acceptable behavior? Let us know your thoughts!