Caroline Flack's death shows we should all pause and reflect on how we use social media
I didn’t know Caroline Flack. Nor had I watched Love Island but her death has affected me so much more than she did in life. And that is grim.
But there is a particular memory seared in my mind’s eye – of seeing her walking out of court to face the paparazzi, clutching the arm of a policeman to steady herself as she navigated the scrum before her.
And while you should never judge a woman for what she wears, and in normal circumstances I never would, I admit to thinking how completely contradictory it was for this delicate-looking creature, charged with domestic abuse, and who was already being so cruelly exposed by the press, to be tottering down the court steps in towering heels, a low cut top and a tiny leather skirt. It was cold and yet she was wearing a thick woollen scarf, which seemed pointless given the rest of her ensemble, but it just added to the incongruity. Her clothes screamed ‘look at me’, but in truth, she was looking to hide.
I thought then that this was a woman on the edge. A paradoxical jumble, complex, vulnerable and yet so ‘out there’, and I fretted about what could come next. Who was looking out for her, advising her, supporting her, being there trying to save herself from herself?
I, too, am often worn down by the vitriol and filth I get from anonymous keyboard warriors
That’s the image, that pitiful pastiche outside a courthouse, that haunts me.
Being famous, rich, or powerful doesn’t mean you are immune to hurt. And being in the public eye can prove a very lonely place when it turns against you.
Flack must have felt such desolation when she ended her life, and while a cloud of despair engulfed me thinking of the dark place she must have been in, my thoughts also turned to others, closer to me, known by me, who fall from a lofty height to face judgement and social opprobrium on their own.
Their pain may well be self-inflicted, and I would do nothing to minimise the alleged behaviours that led to the downfall of the likes of Flack, or on home turf, of Derek Mackay, Mark McDonald, and what may come from the fall-out from the upcoming trial of Alex Salmond. But while we are often the architects of our own fall from grace, when you fall from on high, there is no softer landing just because of who you are and where you have been. You are very much on your own.
There has been an outpouring of grief over the tragic end to Flack’s life. But it didn’t happen in a vacuum – there was a momentum that took her there. She played out much of her life on social media – a gladiatorial place that can build you up and so easily pull you down – but with so many affected by the suicide of someone they thought they knew well enough to pick apart her life and pass judgement, it’s time to hold a mirror to ourselves and reflect on the collective responsibility we have had in making that world on the web so harsh right now.
Flack said that she had been “pressing the snooze button on many stresses in my life – for my whole life”. She believed that it was just “all part of my job” to take the slings and arrows that came her way. Untrue. Becoming a victim of a social media blood sport is not in anyone’s job description.
I know many people in politics and the media wouldn’t be on Twitter if it wasn’t for their job
Social media can be a place of great humour, of empathy, a sharing place for experiences of life’s rich tapestry but oh, my, it can be a dark and dismal place of grotesque vindictiveness. A place to hunt scalps and to pick away at people’s vulnerabilities. A warzone.
Earlier this month, a blogger described one of my award-winning columnists, Laura Kelly, as “the epitome of a toxic, delusional, social justice, man-hater; whose insecure blind spots, lack of intelligence and total disregard for the facts show her up as a childish stereotype”. Thank God, she has strength and a sense of humour.
I, too, am often worn down by the vitriol and filth I get from anonymous keyboard warriors who repeatedly call for me to be sacked. I can dismiss the silly boys with the red circles in their Twitter handles put there to intimidate women. I can laugh at the one that changed his Twitter handle to ‘Mandy Rhodes platforms Nazis’ but who took the precaution of first locking down his account. How brave. I can ignore the bullies who tell me what they think but give me no opportunity to know who they are.
Of course, you can ‘put up with it’, but it wears you down. I’ve enjoyed healthy debate all my life, but this is not where we are at right now. And while I’m not saying social media killed Caroline Flack, when you live in a world where anonymous trolls infect your every waking hour, it drains. It has its effect.
I know many people in politics and the media wouldn’t be on Twitter if it wasn’t for their job. They see it as a necessary evil but to be approached with caution. It is an echo chamber full of confirmation bias where the mute button, the ability to block and the anonymity gives people licence to spew bile.
But we must stop, pause, and reflect much more on the tweets that we publish.
Writing about Flack’s death, Russell Brand said the line that separates people who kill themselves from those that don’t is “vague and it is uncertain, it is a line within each of us, not between us”.
We don’t know who will or won’t be pushed over that line. We will never know whether it was meant, an accident gone wrong, or a cry from the heart, leaving just the question of why echoing around an echo chamber of despair.
The truth is, there will be numerous reasons why Caroline Flack ended her life, but we could all behave better by applying more liberally what has become her very simple epitaph, #Bekind