Do you have a Caroline Flack relationship with social media?
Many of us engage with social media without considering why. Our usage patterns need a rethink
Caroline Flack was subjected to relentless tabloid stories throughout her career, particularly about her relationships. Photograph: Anthony Harvey/Getty Images
In the aftermath of the death of television presenter Caroline Flack, much of the discourse is sadly familiar. Flack took her own life last weekend, following a period of personal upheaval that included being charged for assault against her boyfriend and stepping back from her most high-profile job as a presenter on the reality television show Love Island.
The search for explanations is an inevitable – and often simplistic – ritual after a famous person kills themselves. Initial finger-pointing has focused on tabloid behaviour and negativity on social media, although the reasons for her death are unknown and likely to be more complex.
But they seem to be key components of her unhappiness. Flack was subjected to relentless tabloid stories throughout her career, particularly about her relationships. This week, her family released a post she had written but never published on her Instagram page. It shows a woman clearly struggling with multiple pressures.
“I’ve been pressing the snooze button on many stresses in my life – for my whole life,” she wrote, “I’ve accepted shame and toxic opinions on my life for over 10 years and yet told myself it’s all part of my job. No complaining. The problem with brushing things under the carpet is they are still there and one day someone is going to lift that carpet up and all you are going to feel is shame and embarrassment.”
Deaths of high-profile women whose public lives have been typified by invasions of privacy, such as Princess Diana and Amy Winehouse, initially bring a period of public mourning, outrage and reflection. But the behaviour and culture that afflicted them usually reappears quickly.
The tabloid and entertainment media do not appear to prioritise a duty of care when covering those in the public eye who are clearly in vulnerable states. In fact, they are perceived as fodder for paparazzi and tabloids, and “breakdowns” when they occur are just another form of content.
In 2018, the actor Keira Knightley spoke about her own “mental breakdown” in the spotlight. She was frequently followed by gangs of paparazzi who she said exist in a business of documenting “women falling apart”. The actor Sienna Miller told the 2011 Leveson inquiry into phone hacking that years of tabloid and paparazzi attention left her paranoid and scared.
But you don’t have to be Caroline Flack or Keira Knightley to be affected by this culture. At this stage, the cocktail of social media, celebrity, tabloids, the end of privacy, and cancel culture – a type of celebrity boycott as a result of condemned opinions or actions – don’t just affect famous people.
Many with a far lower profile than Flack are now coopting or even experiencing the characteristics of fame, or at least a public life, on social media platforms, while their followers replicate the negative energy of baying tabloids.
‘You can’t hide from your phone’
James Kavanagh is one of the most well-known Irish figures on Instagram, with more than 133,000 followers. His online presence has led to a career as a television presenter, and multiple brand collaborations.
“As soon as I head about Caroline Flack, my anger was directed towards individuals and people online rather than tabloids and media, although I know they have a huge part to play too,” Kavanagh says.
“With tabloids, there is a certain amount you can hide from if you are a public figure being written about a lot in a negative way. But you can’t hide from your phone unless you delete your social media apps. So when you look at celebrities, it’s very different to how it was 15 years ago.”
Kavanagh mentions Billie Eilish, the acclaimed teenage musician who this week said reading Instagram comments was ruining her life. The idea that someone as famous and busy as Eilish still had time to read comments on her Instagram clarifies the degree of proximity celebrities have to their anonymous critics.
Kavanagh says that the perception that everyone with a large online following “has a little assistant running their account” is “ridiculous”.
The most heightened criticism Kavanagh receives, he said, is when he moves beyond his own channels, and is exposed to a broader audience, such as an appearance on the Late Late Show. “That’s when I see stuff. There was a lot of people saying really homophobic stuff that I thought was left 20 years ago – ‘why are they letting this man who clearly has AIDS on TV’ – ridiculously homophobic stuff.
“I always try and not do it, but if I was on [a programme], I would look at the hashtag, even though I shouldn’t. There might be 30 lovely [comments], but then one thing is negative about me, and I would only think of that. It’s so annoying because I would love to not care.”
Sarah Gilligan is a psychotherapist and counsellor at Capable Minds in Dublin. Gilligan makes the connection between reality television and social media, both of which can elevate “regular folk” to celebrity status.
Reality television was a major part of Flack’s professional life. She was a “personality”; profile-building, likeability, relevance, and the strength of one’s personal brand are part of the job, inextricably linking professional and personal worth.
Like many people, Flack used social media. She had a large following on Instagram of 2.7 million, and her account mirrors those of many: inspirational quotes, personal and professional photos of herself, on holidays, at work, on magazine covers.
Gilligan says that while we – whether famous or unknown – often develop online presences out of a personal or professional needs, we may not be clear about our expectations, and can be surprised by our vulnerabilities.
“It makes me take a deep breath,” Gilligan says, regarding putting a lot of personal information on social media. “If you’re putting a lot of personal information out there, what is your expectation? Do you think you are going to find long-term friendships? Do you think you are going to be heard? What is it that you want to happen?
“I wonder whether people are doing that, never having checked what their expectation is. But we all have expectations, it’s a human thing. If you do something and the response is less than the expectation, you’re going to have to deal with that. If there’s no resilience ... you’re going to feel void, maybe hurt, maybe ostracised, or you will do more to see if more comes back to you.”
Niall “Bressie” Breslin is the founder of A Lust For Life, host of the Where Is My Mind podcast, and a mindfulness teacher.
Breslin believes there are multiple things at play in the run-up to and the aftermath of Flack’s death, the type of behaviour that online interactions seem to trigger lies deep within our psyche.
“This feeding-frenzy mentality, it’s literally in our evolutionary psychology. Outrage is an immensely addictive behaviour. The tabloids are the petrol, and social media is the spark that lights it.”
Breslin says we need to be aware of how social medial platforms are designed to be addictive, and then examine our negativity bias. Breslin has carved out a high-profile career across music, television, public speaking, education, and in other arenas, and “like everybody else I’ve received massive levels of abuse. Some of it is warranted at times, some of it isn’t”.
Previously, he would find himself getting angry and overwhelmed, but now he switches to an empathy reaction, that someone saying something disgusting to him may themselves be hurting, which allows him to move on from abuse or criticism.
For Richie Sadlier– broadcaster, author, and psychotherapist – a negative experience on social media is not a given for everyone. “Everyone’s experience of social media is completely unique to them. If your social media interactions are about sharing recipes for your favourite desserts, it’s going to be a really positive experience.
“If you’re a couple having fertility issues and you go online and you connect with other couples in the same boat, and you can share your experience from them, and learn from what they’ve gone through or are going through, and you can feel supported and guided and nurtured. What a really positive experience that’s going to be.
“Now, if your social media experience is sharing your views on all sorts of topics all day on Twitter, it’s like being in a boxing ring every single morning, and inviting a challenge, inviting a punch, inviting a fight with an unknown amount of people all day long.”
Sadlier wonders whether people take responsibility for their own interactions with social media, and whether they believe that they have control and power over those interactions. It can often feel that being on platforms is mandatory because their pull is so strong, but leaving platforms rarely creates the sense of loss than one imagines.
A different approach
Social media activity often involves calling out the failings of others, as opposed to discussing the merits of an argument or opinion. “The person who goes online and feels the need to call out other people or to highlight contradictions in their arguments or just to bring attention to the flaws in someone’s thinking,” Sadlier says, “I mean, you could feel quite good about yourself after that, you feel superior to that person – ‘I’ve just demonstrated I’ve got more intellect than you, and here’s how’.
“You mightn’t even consider that, inherent in that process, you’ve got to diminish the standing of the person that you’re engaging with, and you’ve got to do it in a very public setting.”
Sadlier says that in the past, he was quite sensitive about online commentary about himself. Now he feels better equipped to deal with it.
“There are loads of people who use these platforms who you would describe as ill-equipped, or unsupported, or vulnerable, and people take don’t account for that. If someone is reading a tweet that they disagree with or an opinion that they find offensive or a hot take that they find laughable, they will take you down.”
Will it take more tragic deaths such as Flack’s, he asks. “Do we need loads of people coming forward [saying] how difficult they found it? How bad does it have to get for people to go ‘this has gone over the line here, we need to all on an individual basis ... do this differently?”
Niall Breslin believes Flack’s death should be a turning point, and that it’s symbolic and a representation of a much broader problem. “There are young women, young men, up and down the country every single day dealing with this and not making it. Unfortunately we’re losing them. It’s not about fame, it’s about something causing a f***load of pain for people. We can’t keep doing this.”