The internet has changed gossip forever – but what happens when it turns toxic?

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the UK would enter lockdown in March 2020, our worlds shrunk to our living rooms.

Social interaction happened at a measured distance or through a screen, warping into a strange sort of reality show in which we were both participants and observers.

All that observation soon turned into judgment.

In lockdown, Twitter became awash with people sniping about those not following the ‘rules’, chastising others for congregating outside of their homes.

Partly through boredom, and partly through self-righteousness, we became a nation of gossips, quickly glancing up and down at someone’s actions and passing judgement, be it sniping with friends or sharing someone else’s perceived bad behaviour on social media for all to see.

The intense, pressure cooker environment that the coronavirus pandemic fostered saw many of us invest in a rather ugly surveillance culture, where gossip reigned supreme.

‘Emotions and behaviours were, and continue to be, heightened due to the pandemic and lockdowns,’ Dr Ruth Penfold-Mounce, a sociologist at the University of York explains. ‘Our sense of connection to others is being challenged and with many people feeling fearful, it’s quick and easy to start criticising each other if some people are not living by the standards we are holding ourselves to.’

Looking at this sort of scenario, it’s tempting to dismiss gossip as a toxic symptom of a sick society. But talking about other people is a fundamental part of day-to-day life, pandemic or not.

‘Gossip has various functions in society,’ says Elisa Bellotti, a sociologist for the Mitchell Centre for Social Network Analysis and the University of Manchester.

‘It reinforces the sense of belonging to a community. We gossip about people we personally know, or people in the public eye we are interested in, and in doing so we express a sense of belonging to a social circle who shares common acquaintances and common interests.

‘It’s a mechanism we use to build social norms. We gossip about what we think people have done right or wrong, and thus we negotiate what in our social circles is admissible, desirable, inconvenient, and so on.

‘It also reinforces intimacy. We gossip about people who are not present, but with people we trust will keep the secrecy of the conversation.

‘We do know, however, that gossip very rarely stays within the circle of people who initiate it: when we talk about third parties, we assume the responsibility of what we say, and we invest our conversational partners with the same responsibility.’

Above all, gossip is a form of entertainment – something we needed all the more amid the immense boredom of lockdown.

‘Around two thirds of conversation time involves gossip, and according to research on brain responses, even malicious gossip is something that amuses us despite the fact that we might get annoyed by it,’ notes Elisa.

Other people’s behaviour has always been a fascination to us, making gossip a lucrative business. While tabloids and showbiz magazines such as Heat dominated conversations in the early 2000s, gossip sites and blogs have sprung up in their place over the last decade. These digital alternatives mean we can get the latest snark-ready information at our fingertips, at any time.

‘How we gossip, who we gossip with, and how we consume gossip has changed with the rise of digital media forms,’ De Penfold-Mounce says. ‘The shift here is in how we consume from the physical magazine to online blogs. Blogs are far more instant than a published magazine so are more up to date and in “real time”.’

The human need to consume and share gossip, and how this has been shaped by the internet, can be best exemplified by DeuxMoi – the Instagram account that saw its popularity go stratospheric in lockdown, now boasting over one million followers.

Originally a fashion blog ran by an anonymous New Yorker, the account changed its focus by chance when the city became ravaged by Covid in March last year.

One boring Saturday night, the woman running the account asked her followers whether they had any stories about famous people, and suddenly found herself with stacks of celebrity encounters, stretched across the entire spectrum from sleazy to silly.

While the creator of DeuxMoi has repeatedly stressed none of the stories have been independently verified, this has done little to diminish the account’s popularity.

Posting tidbits of gossip on the account’s Stories, meaning they’re only available for 24 hours, DeuxMoi keeps their followers hooked and constantly checking for the latest updates from the showbiz sphere.

While DeuxMoi has managed to land itself some real scoops in its year-long tenure (the account posted a tip that Zoe Kravitz and her partner were getting a divorce hours before her agent confirmed the news to People magazine), the vast majority of its posts are colourful but banal.

‘It’s because those types of stories are relatable,’ DeuxMoi tells Metro.co.uk. ‘Nicole Kidman drinks bone dry cappuccinos and we can go to a Starbucks and order our own bone dry cap, so that type of information becomes attainable and makes anyone feel like they can live like a celebrity.

‘In the pandemic, everyone was home and felt protected from consequence, so they were more open to share gossip.’

With DeuxMoi’s popularity seeing them become Instagram’s answer to Gossip Girl, and even celebrities such as Bella Hadid now following the account, DeuxMoi’s identity is now a subject of discussion, with people she chatted about now circling around her.

It’s when the internet is used to gossip about otherwise ‘ordinary’ individuals that can result in otherwise banal tittle-tattle being weaponised.

Showbiz stars tend to be armed with teams of lawyers that have the power to fight back against or in some cases, quash, gossip that makes them look unsavoury.

But with social media giving us a rich tapestry of people to observe and talk about, anyone with even a modest following can fall victim to malicious and vicious gossip – with hugely damaging consequences.

I think Tattle Life is genuinely very dangerous. It’s only a matter of time before something very serious happens…

Sites such as Reddit’s r/blogsnark thread, or GOMI (short for Get Off My Internets) target so-called internet celebrities or influencers. While GOMI was launched in 2008 by a US blogger as a mostly harmless snark site, aiming to take inflated influencers down a peg or two, the line between gossip, snark, cruelty and outright harassment has been blurred beyond the point of recognition.

One of the newer snark sites is Tattle Life. Despite having only been launched around three years ago in order to ‘allow commentary and critiques of people that choose to monetise their personal life’, the forum boasts thousands of threads, surveying celebrities, influencers and even Instagram users with fewer than 10,000 followers.

Every movement is obsessively watched, discussed and pulled apart through vicious comments and wild speculation. Tattle Life is considered so toxic that it was a struggle to find someone who was willing to talk about it, even anonymously, due to fearing retaliation from people on their thread.

Influencer Hannah Louise, who boasts over 60,000 Instagram followers, discovered she had a thread dedicated to her on Tattle Life after receiving a few ‘weird’ comments online. The vast majority of the comments on the thread tend to be snide remarks about her aesthetic and Instagram posts, but other, more sinister and damaging comments speculate on her relationships, lifestyle and her finances.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CUZyLgAKsny/

‘It didn’t particularly upset me, but it bothered me,’ she explains. ‘I was definitely thinking about a few of the comments and just the fact that my thread existed for the rest of the day or week.

‘I still do involuntarily think about the things I read from time to time.

‘I haven’t changed what I post, but I suppose I am more aware that everything I post is being analysed and may be being commented on.’

Hannah made the executive decision to never check the thread about her again, believing it’s ‘vital that influencers and online creators never ever read their own pages on these forums’.

‘I think Tattle Life is genuinely very dangerous,’ she says. ‘If I was in a less stable place mentally I would probably be reading my own thread, driving myself to distraction, and I don’t think the things people say about me are even that bad compared to how some people with larger followings, particularly women of colour, larger women and women with children, are treated.

‘It’s only a matter of time before something very serious happens as a result of someone reading their own thread, and the responsibility for that will fall on the commenters and more so on the creators of the forum.’

For some people, that damage is already being done. Beauty journalist Sali Hughes was forced to post an emotive video to her Instagram page to discuss the ceaseless trolling she received on the site, and the impact it had on her livelihood, mental health and family.

Meanwhile, influencer Em Sheldon discussed the pure volume of abuse about her on a Tattle Life thread to a select committee of MPs for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. ‘It’s a dark space of the internet where people spend all day writing about us,’ she said. ‘They think we deserve it because we put ourselves online.’

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The difficulty of these sorts of gossip sites is just how they can be tackled. Some people have suggested that the internet should remove any sort of anonymity in order to put a curb to this level of toxic harassment – but Hannah is less convinced.

‘There is the issue of “free speech”, and of course people who are obsessed enough will always find a way to leave anonymous comments – but having a forum set-up with the sole purpose of anonymous gossip is unnecessarily enabling,’ she said. ‘I’m not sure exactly what the government or social media companies can do, but I absolutely think the forum should be removed by its creators.’

Bellotti argues that there is no such thing as genuine anonymity online, anyway.

‘Doing anything online leaves a digital footprint and only the most skilled users are able to hide completely. Also, if anonymity was banned it would be inevitable that technical solutions would be found to reintroduce it,’ she says. ‘Removing anonymity would also denature the internet. The internet is where anonymity is key, and where social and cultural resistance is possible.’

Are we now permanently trapped in a crueller society, where gossip that verges on harassment and is tantamount to trolling can just run riot?

Not exactly, says Bellotti. The internet, in relative terms, is still quite young, and so we’re still learning how to behave appropriately on there.

‘Ultimately, as we said the nature of gossip is to negotiate and diffuse social norms,’ she says. ‘We are still learning how to behave and interact online: discussion and awareness about online malicious gossip and trolling is increasing, which means that we are negotiating new sets of social rules.

‘What we should do is to educate people to follow them, rather than enforce them.’

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