Saturday 22 June 2024

It’s so easy to be cruel behind a keyboard

This column first appeared on Malta Today (before the first programme was aired)

Reality shows are a breed of their own and with each passing year the formats change and the stakes keep getting higher as producers strive to push the envelope for ratings. Aware that the audiences out there are jaded and have seen it all, the ideas have become more and more outrageous.

In the long-running show “I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here’, we have seen well-known faces eating worms and cockroaches, trapped with rodents and other creepy crawlies and overcoming their fear of heights and other phobias. All this while trying to get along as a group under the glare of cameras. Viewers love it and it continues to be one of the most popular shows on British TV. Then in 2013 the US Discovery channel launched “Naked and Afraid” in which total strangers are dropped into a jungle where they not only need to survive the elements but, as the title suggests, they are naked (and afraid).

Survival shows have their own specific audiences who (apparently) get a vicarious thrill out of watching all the terrifying, often stomach churning challenges and enjoy seeing how long it takes before people crack under pressure. On the other end of the spectrum, you have those reality shows which fulfil some other kind of viewership need…involving love, titillating gossip, relationships and sex.

This is where “Love Island” comes in. Love it or hate it, Malta has launched its own version of the international TV franchise which goes on air this evening.

The premise of this reality show is simple: put five single men and five single women together on an island and see who falls in love. The group of contestants, referred to as Islanders, have to live in isolation from the outside world in a villa constantly under video surveillance.

It’s basically Big Brother meets the Dating Game (which those my age will remember) where you had to pick someone from behind a screen based purely on how they answer questions. Well, this show takes it further steps further. On the first day, the Islanders couple up for the first time based on first impressions, but over the duration of the series they are forced to “re-couple” where they can choose to remain in their current couple or swap partners. Cutting past all the gradual build up of trying to get to know someone first by going on several dates, Love Island thrusts them into a relationship and close proximity from the get go.

Now, granted, what all reality shows have in common are the thousands of comments and opinions they generate from the general public which take on a life of their own. Putting yourself out there on TV seems to imply that you should be prepared for what is to follow. Like its counterparts around the world, the main focus of Love Island (Malta) is on appearance; in fact, the photos released to introduce the contestants showed the young women in bikinis and the young men bare chested. So with a show like Love Island, the inevitable public reaction has been cranked up even more – before the first episode has even aired, the commentary on the contestants has already started.

Or maybe should I rephrase that: the cruelty has already started.

The whole concept may not be your cup of tea (I admit it’s not mine) but shouldn’t we be mature enough to just keep scrolling? Why is there this uncontrollable need to be nasty and sometimes even malicious in an attempt to be “funny” and attract likes and laughing emojis. Some of the comments I have seen so far are unprintable and, as usual, the female contestants are the easiest targets (and I have also noticed to my dismay that it is women who are also likely to post the cruelest comments against their own gender). Again, whatever you may think of the whole show, there are a million channels out there, and no one will be forcing you to tune in…although I can already tell that many will be tuning in precisely to viciously tear the contestants apart with their bare teeth like starving hyenas.

As the saying goes, this is not our first rodeo. We should know by now that commenting publicly on a social media platform is vastly different from passing comments in private between four walls or a private chat (which most of us do). Once you put something deeply offensive out there the potential of everyone seeing it is limitless, including the parents of the contestants – but I guess those commenting really don’t care do they? Meanwhile, all those who have children that age can feel an acute pang of anxiety that it could be their daughter or son who everyone is busy mocking. There is also the issue of age – some of the participants are barely out of their teens – and I wish everyone would pause before hitting their keyboard and remember how devastating a single comment can be at that age. Heck, we can be in our 50s and 60s and still feel deeply wounded by a thoughtless remark or a jibe directed at us.

I always wonder what makes it OK for certain things to be said online which one would never dream of saying to someone’s face, especially in a small community like ours where everyone is connected in some way, whether through family, friendships, or even work.

I’m not saying Malta is unique when it comes to this cyber nastiness (although it does sometimes feel like the penchant for being cruel in this country keeps being ramped up a notch year after year). But no, it doesn’t only happen here – there are countless international celebrities and reality TV stars who have been at the receiving end of Twitter tirades who have abandoned the social media stratosphere precisely because they could not take the hate any longer. Sophie Gradon, a former Miss Great Britain, was a contestant on Love Island (UK) 2016 who gained a huge fan base because of the show, but also a lot of hate from the incessant trolls. During a radio interview in 2018 she said:

“It was horrific. I think when you get so many comments on the scale we did coming out of thousands of followers…Sometimes I would look for it … There would be so many negative comments. They are commenting on the way you look, the way you talk. They would come up with an opinion of you on a TV show where they’ve watched you for 45 minutes.”
A more recent contestant, Coco Lodge was quoted as saying: “I also have had to deal with the bad side of now being in the public eye, especially with social media trolls and negative press which has felt hard at times especially when they have been so brutal about my appearance, which sometimes makes you question yourself…. regardless of anyone’s opinion I have to love myself and all my features and imperfections that I put in a spotlight for people to crucify, I chose this decision and I’ve just had to own it both the good and the bad.”
So what it is about reality shows which brings out the worst in human nature? Behavioural and Media psychologist Jo Hemmings spoke to Grazia magazine last year about why women on reality TV receive so much abuse:
“I think there’s still a belief that if you put yourself out there on a TV show, you’re fair game. It’s very dehumanising. I don’t think trolls realise the impact they’re having a lot of the time.’
If they do not realise, we have to keep reminding them. Many will be watching Love Island ready to pounce with a withering comment, but instead of sharing it with the whole of Malta, control your urge to press ‘post comment’ on social media and just share it privately with your friends instead. It might not get you the same amount of likes or widespread instant gratification, but at least you won’t be destroying someone publicly either.