This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
Why Do the Toxic People Always Win?
In the last 24 hours on Twitter, I’ve laughed at everyone’s jokes about the boat stuck in the Suez Canal, each trying to encapsulate how it seems *just right* that, at this complicated moment in our global existence, of course a freaking boat would halt international trade for weeks because of a gust of wind.
I saw Hugh Grant’s name turned into a silly meme. I’ve watched Teresa Giudice’s masterclass appearance on Watch What Happens Live celebrated, Jane Fonda’s ferocious photo shoot for Harper’s Bazaar celebrated, and Bo Burnham’s casting as Larry Bird in HBO series about the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers celebrated. (They are both so tall!)
People made jokes about donuts and vaccines, vented in solidarity with the infuriatingly laid-off staffs of The Huffington Post and MEL magazine, spoke in support of the Asian-American community, railed for gun control, and took an ex-senator’s daughter to task for the horseshit-of-the-day she spewed on The View. These were all nice, good things.
It’s easy to list the nice, good things about social media apps to justify why you’re still on them. It’s not so much a daily ritual as it is one you have to invoke minute-by-minute when you use these things. How else then can you reckon with the toxicity, which is not just inescapable, but escalating?
I’m not a technology reporter or a fringe politics reporter, so I will assume people reading this are familiar with the QAnon phenomenon, their harmful and dangerous rhetoric and ideas, and the violent harassment they coordinate on social media. But I do cover pop culture, and have watched as this world—one that is supposed to be of fun, distraction, and silliness—has become painfully knotted with that one.
Chrissy Teigen, who was once thought of as the “unofficial mayor” of Twitter because of how popular her self-effacing tweets and occasional snark were, announced she was leaving the app because of the toll that aforementioned toxicity was taking on her mental health.
“For over 10 years, you guys have been my world,” she wrote. “I honestly owe so much to this world we have created here. I truly consider so many of you my actual friends. But it’s time for me to say goodbye. This no longer serves me as positively as it serves me negatively, and I think that’s the right time to call something.”
In follow-up tweets, she continued, “My life goal is to make people happy. The pain I feel when I don’t is just too much for me. I’ve always been portrayed as the strong clap back girl but I’m just not. My desire to be liked and fear of pissing people off has made me somebody you didn’t sign up for, and a different human than I started out here as! Live well, tweeters. Please know all I ever cared about was you!”
Over time, a public social media presence has bred the assumption that the person behind it is a fair target for cruelty and vitriol, and Teigen became target practice for the worst of it. Criticisms ran the gamut from mocking her for thinking she’s relatable to vicious, baseless attacks and threats on even the most innocuous of tweets. That’s discounting fair criticism for tone-deaf posts; the tidal wave of hostility and maliciousness superseded any of those justifiable reactions.
QAnon supporters believe her and her husband John Legend to be a part of a conspiracy theory (the grotesque details to which I won’t give space here) and banded together for an unprecedented harassment campaign against her on social media that threatened her and her family’s safety. It’s all been absolutely heinous, and, in a way, it all worked. Teigen is now offline.
This is not to argue that the world is somehow a worse place because Chrissy Teigen is no longer on Twitter. She will live a fine, arguably better life without it. Wouldn’t we all? But the timing of her decision in light of other recent pop culture events alarms me about the unsafe direction in which entertainment’s relationship with social media is heading.
Last weekend, Zack Snyder’s Justice League debuted on HBO Max, the culmination of a years-long campaign by DC Comics fans to release what has become known as “The Snyder Cut,” a four-hour version of the superhero movie as Snyder had envisioned it. Is there something to cheer about fan gratification of this magnitude? Sure. Is it an interesting exercise in criticism to compare this version to the original film release? OK. Is it a good thing that it exists? Absolutely not.
That the Snyder Cut gained so much momentum has its roots in the efforts of some DC Comics fans directing death threats to critics and film reporters who said anything disparaging about the director or his previous DC films. Warner Brothers employees were harassed and bullied. Violent memes circulated featuring members of the rival superhero film studio, Marvel. And in the end, all of this was validated.
What began as a conspiracy theory—the Snyder Cut never actually existed—was brought to life. A film that was originally a commercial and critical flop was given $70 million to be made two hours longer because of the attention these fans, propagating those messages, brought to the idea.
It’s all so disheartening. It’s not as if people on these apps shouldn’t or can’t handle criticism or appropriate backlash. It’s just that the extreme tone of it has become so normalized. Disagree with my review of something, but why must I “die, stupid faggot” because I thought the last season of Westworld was just really dumb? It’s even worse by multitudes I can’t fairly explain for women and people of color, and reporters who cover politics.
That “fan armies” will rally to attack any critic who posts anything remotely negative about their favorite artist’s new project has just become an accepted fact—only it’s gotten worse. Beyond just tweeting death threats, they have started “doxxing” these writers: publishing and spreading their and their families’ addresses and contact information.
Fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a show that devotes roughly 70 percent of its running time to messages of love and acceptance, regularly drive the series’ stars off social media with hateful rhetoric. The same thing happened in the recent season of The Great British Baking Show. To reiterate, there were death threats in response to an episode of The Great British Baking Show!!!
It worries me that we’ve just accepted all of this as an inevitability. (My friend Amil Niazi recently joked on the Pop Chat podcast we do together that the “Mank Hive” will come for her after she criticized the snoozy black-and-white Netflix film. But it was only partly a joke.) I feel like most people who will read this are familiar with this “toxicity” phenomenon and will shrug, so what? Maybe there are people who are learning about it for the first time. To them: Does this not sound absolutely insane?
Yet it’s all “normal.” How horrifying.