A few weeks ago, the Guardian’s beauty columnist Sali Hughes posted a video where she outlined the months of systematic bullying she had been subjected to online.
Trolls targeted Sali’s marriage, her children, her credibility as a journalist, all in an attempt to damage her reputation and the career she has spent decades building.
The video is an emotional one, Sali’s voice wavering at times, but her determination is clear. This kind of abuse cannot be allowed to continue, she says.
In the early days, I only used my Twitter account when a news story was breaking — Michael Jackson’s death, an earthquake that caused my apartment in Brooklyn to quiver — but I can remember exactly when I encountered trolling for the first time.
I followed a colleague on Twitter, a young woman whom I liked, because I assumed she would be witty and interesting.
She was, for the most part, but it became clear to me that she hated a certain female popstar, tweeting @ her about her weight, her clothes, her lack of talent.
I was shocked; the behaviour was jarring and utterly at odds with the person I thought I knew. I never looked at my co-worker in the same way again.
Nine years later, my reaction seems almost quaint given how accustomed we have all become to casual cruelty. When an Irish television presenter gets married in a dress that is striking rather than ‘pretty’, the comments range from the dismissive to the outright offensive.
A model posts a photo of herself in a bikini with her child and people rush to comment about how she’s too thin since giving birth and actually, that sun hat on the baby looks a little tight, she must be a bad mother.
A mixed-race actress marries a Prince and comment sections are flooded with vile, unfounded accusations that she is a ‘yacht girl’, she’s demanding, a diva, that she pretended to be pregnant.
A young activist starts a vital campaign to highlight climate change and she is torn apart online for her Asperger’s, her looks, any minute ‘flaws’ in her environmentalism, like eating lunch from a plastic container, greedily pounced upon. I can’t help but wonder where this is all going to end.
Are we becoming more malicious? Or is there something about a screen, computer or phone that makes us braver, encourages us to say things we never would in real life?
It’s easy to brush off my discomfort with online commentary as over-sensitivity, or to say celebrities should just delete their Instagram and Twitter accounts if they can’t handle the abuse when for many, social media is integral to their careers and where they make the majority of their income (or, as in Greta Thunberg’s case, where they build awareness and momentum for causes they believe in).
And, of course, there’s a difference between abuse and legitimate criticism, and someone like Sali Hughes has been doing this job long enough to understand that distinction.
She’s perfectly capable of assimilating critique of her work but a personal assassination is not part of her job description, and it’s not part of mine either. People have raised issues with columns I’ve written before; sometimes they were fair comments and I acknowledged my own blind spots and vowed to do better, sometimes I disagreed with the remarks and let the criticism pass me by.
But there have been times where I am left speechless by what others think is acceptable to say to a complete stranger.
When I write articles about my recovery, there will be sly jabs about my ‘weight-gain’ — odd, considering the photos accompanying said article were taken pre-recovery — and the insidiousness of that frightens me.
Imagine trying to deliberately derail an addict’s recovery? To think it’s ‘entertainment’ to potentially cause someone to relapse, endangering their lives and causing untold havoc in their relationships and family lives?
I’m not on Twitter or Instagram at the moment but apparently there are online forums with pages and pages of threads dedicated to attacking me, so venomous that I was advised to seek legal advice.
I haven’t looked at these forums, not out of any sense of moral superiority but because of self-preservation. I’m afraid that if I read those comments, I will never forget them.
I’ve been told that by writing this column, I am only encouraging such behaviour, giving trolls the airtime they so desperately crave.
I’ve been told not to take it personally, ironic considering the attacks are designed to be devastatingly personal.
I don’t think it’s weakness to admit I have been hurt by some of things that have been said about me.
I’ve been afraid that friends and family might stumble across these forums and see my greatest insecurities writ large, and I’ve also felt a profound sense of shame over what they might find there.
But I know now that I don’t have anything to be ashamed of. I’m not perfect and I’ve made many mistakes, but I am a good person.
I would never speak about another human being in such a spiteful way, either online or in real life. And if you are someone who does, I would ask you to do one thing.
Before you press send on that comment, stop and imagine how would you feel if a stranger said something similar about you? What if it was your sister, your best friend, or your child who was being flayed alive for sport?
LISTEN: The Beauty Podcast with Sali Hughes.
From bridal makeup to how the menopause affects your beauty routine, this podcast is the kind of direct, engaging content you would expect from a journalist as well-regarded as Hughes.
READ: Paris Syndrome by Lucy Sweeney Byrne.
This collection of short stories is centred around a young woman’s experiences travelling alone.
Beautifully written, it’s full of devastatingly astute observations and dark humour. I couldn’t put it down.