Chrissy Teigen’s online bullying has become somebody else’s business model

Can the social media star come back from her admission that she was a troll? Oh yes

Chrissy Teigen: As long as she goes on posting, people are getting rich.  Photograph: by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Global Citizen VAX LIVE

Chrissy Teigen: As long as she goes on posting, people are getting rich. Photograph: by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Global Citizen VAX LIVE

 

It is a good rule of thumb that if you build a brand on being likeable, you’d better make sure there aren’t any decades-old trolls lurking in your cupboard.

Chrissy Teigen – TV personality, cookbook author, model, fashion designer, social media star and muse to musician husband John Legend – created several careers out of being the kind of person you’d very much like to go for brunch with. Her brand was sharp, funny and self-deprecating, maybe not always nice, but never dull.

A decade ago, Teigen was mostly still known for her magazine covers and relationship with Legend. Since then, she has blossomed into a star in her own right – someone who managed to carry off being both vulnerable and gutsy; wealthy enough to holiday on superyachts, relatable enough that the holiday snaps didn’t alienate her followers, of whom there are 34.9 million on Instagram and 13.7 million on Twitter.

She could be enjoyably spiky: she goaded Donald Trump until he blocked her, and she became the victim of a hate campaign by QAnon.

Part of Teigen’s appeal was that she is self-made. When she started out modelling in the early 2000s, she didn’t have a credit card or a bank account, and says she ate in McDonald’s to save money.

Another factor in her success was her willingness to be publicly vulnerable. She shared her experience of post-natal depression in 2017. Last year, she wrote harrowingly about the loss of her son, Jack, when she was 20 weeks’ pregnant, posting raw, hard-to-see photos taken in the throes of grief.

Mostly, Teigen’s popularity was due to the fact that she was really, really good at Twitter. She may not have been quite as good as she seemed, however.

Tweets she wrote in 2011 and 2012 recently resurfaced to tarnish the gleam of her perma-likability.

The target of the controversial tweets was Courtney Stodden, a beauty pageant queen turned singer and US reality TV star. In 2011, aged 16, Stodden married a 50-year-old acting coach, Doug Hutchinson. They divorced last year and Stodden – who identifies as non-binary – later claimed they had been a victim of abuse who had been “groomed” and “absolutely taken advantage of”.

But despite the 34-year age gap, and the fact that Stodden was a child, it was Stodden rather than Hutchinson who was on the receiving of public vitriol, including from figures like CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Courtney Love.

And it now emerges that a substantial chunk of it was meted out by Teigen, both publicly and in private. These weren’t one-off quips, either. They weren’t even quips. “go. to sleep. forever,” Teigen tweeted at Stodden, telling them to take a “dirt nap”. On another occasion, she wrote “i hate you” and “u are just so effing weird”.

For her fans, this is all the more galling considering Teigen herself departed Twitter in March, blaming the bullying she had been subjected to for “years”. “Never forget that your words matter. No matter what you see, what that person portrays, or your intention. I have taken so many small, 2-follower-count punches that at this point, I am honestly deeply bruised,” she said at the time, betraying a lack of self-awareness that proved too much for Stodden, who promptly did an interview with the Daily Beast.

Teigen – who suffered an immediate commercial fallout when the trolling became public in May – responded immediately on Twitter, and this week at more length on Medium.

She said she thought it made her “cool and relatable” if she “poked fun at celebrities.” But she now realises that “words have consequences and there are real people behind Twitter handles I went after,” she said on Medium. “I wasn’t just attacking some random avatar, but hurting young women … Why did I think there was some kind of invisible psycho-celebrity formula that prevents anyone with more followers from experiencing pain?...I was a troll, full stop.”

Does the abject nature of her apology, or even the fact that it all happened a decade ago when social media was a snarkier place, absolve her for telling a vulnerable young person to take their own life? Stodden doesn’t think so. “I accept her apology and forgive her. But the truth remains the same, I have never heard from her or her camp in private. In fact, she blocked me on Twitter. All of me wants to believe this is a sincere apology, but it feels like a public attempt to save her [commercial] partnerships.”

I tend to agree. Teigen was 26 at the time, a decade Stodden’s senior, and more than old enough to know what she was doing. Can her career recover from revelations that she taunted an obviously vulnerable 16-year-old to take their own life?

Teigen clearly thinks so, since she has resumed posting as normal on Instagram. It’s a measure of how inured we are to this kind of thing that so, apparently, do many of her followers. A post about her children’s preschool graduation, published just hours after her apology for trolling, got over 936,000 likes, many times more than even some of her best performing tweets before the controversy blew up.

This is about more than a celebrity facing a reckoning over their past behaviour. People like Teigen wouldn’t amass millions of followers unless there was a small, maybe unacknowledged part in a lot of us secretly enjoying the show.

The unpalatable truth is that this kind of thing is coded into social media platforms and by degrees, it is being engineered into us. An emotional audience, an upset audience or an angry audience is an engaged audience. If efforts by the likes of Facebook and Twitters to target online hate seem half-hearted, it is because, well, they are half-hearted.

If social media companies really wanted to stop trolling, they could of course end it by tomorrow. But the truth is, they can’t afford to. It’s simply too profitable.

Maybe it’s no bad thing that people can move on rapidly from being cancelled. After all, she has apologised, and what good ever comes from a pile-on over a pile-on? In a situation like this, there are no winners.

Actually, that’s not strictly true. Social media companies don’t routinely reveal how much high-profile accounts are worth to them but, as a rough guide, Trump was estimated to be worth about $2 billion (€1.65 million) to Twitter in 2017. At the time, he had 36 million followers – just a million or so more than Teigen’s current following on Instagram. As long as she goes on posting, people are getting rich.

Meanwhile, the losers are the rest of us. Social media makes us mean by design – it has monetised our nastiest impulses and turned bullying into a business model.