As Jesy Nelson revealed, fame is no defence against toxic online attacks

In choosing to engage with social media, trolling victims fuel a poisonous narrative

The recent documentary from Little Mix’s Jesy Nelson, Odd One Out, should be placed in a time capsule to show future generations the pain of being a young 21st-century woman dealing with cyberbullying. While social media is a key promotional tool of the pop industry, and fame has a price, this doesn’t excuse the way that Nelson was tortured about her looks and weight. Still, her experience usefully demonstrates how young people – even famous, successful ones – can be tricked into tending their own online misery.

There’s nothing original about casual cruelty but these days, it’s turbo-boosted by social media platforms that allow people to unleash darkness, then pop out for a pizza as though nothing has happened. It’s not the spite that’s new – it’s the ease of it, the grotesque lack of accountability.

Nobody is made to “own” what they say or do, so they can say and do anything. Even the fact that this isn’t new any more has become part of the ugliness – it’s a disgrace that what is effectively a form of psychological mass brutality remains largely unregulated.

However, what’s happening on the outside is only part of the story. It’s not only about the trolls – it’s about the damage caused by our inner trolls. This is one of the monstrous things about cyber-bullying – how trolling can end up feeding the target’s inner troll and how easily this can happen to the famous and non-famous alike. Nelson, for one, felt compelled to keep reading the messages that slated her, to keep investing in the toxic narratives that made her feel devastated, paranoid and, ultimately, suicidal.

The wise thing would be to ignore it, but it’s a rare young person who can turn down the volume on their own insecurities. It also taps into that vulnerable side of human nature – certainly one most young females experience – where you are achingly slow to believe the good news about yourself, but horribly fast to buy into the bad news.

In this way, the target unwittingly works alongside the troll to engineer their own downfall, a process that is as addictive as it is corrosive and, in some cases, fatal. It’s a confidence trick really, a collaborative effort. You could see how someone like Nelson could end up waving away compliments for her achievements, while allowing derision to become her only reality. In fact, you could see it happening to anyone, especially when they’re young. If self-doubt is a poison, it really doesn’t take much to trick a young female into swigging it straight down.

This is what I mean by tending your own online misery. Without the target ready and willing to receive it (and believe it), the vitriol would just be arrows shooting pointlessly into a vast, pixelated void. Of course, far higher consequences for online venom are sorely needed. In the meantime, the only solution, for Nelson and other targets, is to ignore it and to realise that this truly is an option.

Memo to Donald Trump: your wife is called Melania

Donald Trump and Melania Trump
Donald Trump and Melania: he ‘clearly needs crib cards or idiot boards’. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Everyone has moments when they forget they’ve produced certain children. The experience is about as universal as it gets. This time, it was Donald Trump’s turn to “disremember” a human being he’d sired. At a press conference about the health risks of vaping for young people, he referred to his wife Melania’s concerns for their child, 13-year-old Barron, saying: “She’s got a son.” There followed a brief and terrible pause. “Together.”

One tiny moment, so many questions. Had the president forgotten that Barron was his son too? Was that barked “together” his attempt to correct the error, the same way a malfunctioning robot might signal with sad flashing eyes that it needed to be recharged? Why did Trump keep saying “she”? Oh Christ, had he forgotten Melania’s name too? Trump clearly needs crib cards or idiot boards to keep these pesky, low-priority, biog-facts straight. Let’s run through the basics. He has a wife called Melania and they have a son called Barron Trump, who sounds a bit like a character from Wacky Races. Ivanka is the daughter that Trump called “hot” and said he’d probably be dating her if they weren’t related. Another daughter, Tiffany, is rarely seen. Don Jnr and Eric are the creepy sons who resemble the staff of a haunted house in a low-budget horror film and could be easily imagined bringing gifts of small dead animals and birds for their father to admire.

This needs nailing down – it just plays bad in Ohio if the president can’t remember some of his kids. To the rest of us, the Trumps may come across as Succession meets The Addams Family, but Trump is going to have to remember all his children if he’s serious about getting that much-vaunted Trump political dynasty thing going.

Adulterous sex? Just part of a hard day’s work – in France

Madame Bovary
Adultery, French style: Greg Wise and Frances O’Connor in Madame Bovary.
Photograph: Joss Barratt/BBC TWO

Please be alerted to what we might call the “most French-sounding story ever”. A French court ruled that a man who died from a heart attack after having adulterous sex during a work trip had suffered a “workplace accident”. While his employers argued that the man (“Xavier X”) interrupted work for the rendezvous, it was decided that sex was part of everyday life, “like having a shower or a meal”. Therefore, crucially, the worker’s family would receive a better pension and other help.

France isn’t the only country to define workplace accidents as anything that happens during a work trip, though all I can find for the UK are photos of people falling off ladders or lying under boxes. With due respect, Xavier appears to have raised the stakes on the definition of “work-related”. Meanwhile, British people on business trips worry about putting a Toblerone from the minibar on expenses.

It’s difficult to imagine a journalist having such a work-related accident or indulging in anything but exemplary behaviour, but this makes a funny kind of sense. Certainly, it fits the standard British cultural characterisation of the French – the sophistication, the sang-froid regarding les affaires d’amour… and now the adulterous bunk-ups as part of the normal working day. Quelle surprise, right?

• Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist


Barbara Ellen

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Carry on sexting? That’s no way to help your kids… | Barbara Ellen
Parents may not want to go as far as Jeremy Hunt in policing cyberspace, but the desire to be ‘cool’ can make a laissez-faire approach even more dangerous

Barbara Ellen

04, Dec, 2016 @12:05 AM

Article image
Let’s treat online abuse as a public health hazard | Sonia Sodha
Social media bullying is getting the parliamentary attention it deserves – but politicians must focus on what’s going on behind this toxic behaviour

Sonia Sodha

16, Jul, 2017 @5:05 AM

Article image
The Observer view on cyberbullying | Observer editorial
We must support those at risk and also challenge the bullies

Observer editorial

13, Nov, 2016 @12:05 AM

Article image
Jesy Nelson: Odd One Out review – a modern fairytale in reverse
This raw, candid documentary explores the fallout Nelson faced after winning The X Factor with Little Mix: a relentless barrage of abuse from cyberbullies

Rebecca Nicholson

12, Sep, 2019 @9:00 PM

Article image
Melania Trump is no caped crusader for women’s rights. She’s still Donald’s fig leaf | Catherine Bennett
Casting the first lady as a feminist obviously has its attractions. And yet...

Catherine Bennett

07, Dec, 2019 @6:00 PM

Article image
The Observer view on Donald Trump's mendacious re-election campaign | Observer editorial
The president has built a palace of lies. It’s up to Joe Biden to demolish it

Observer editorial

30, Aug, 2020 @5:00 AM

Cyber bullies are vile, but should we be locking them up? | Catherine Bennett
Catherine Bennett: The furore over trolling obscures the real bullying that causes this despicable practice in the first place

Catherine Bennett

17, Sep, 2011 @11:05 PM

Article image
Revealed: how pressures of online life undermine teenage girls’ self-esteem
Daniel Boffey: Major survey of 30,000 pupils reveals that teenagers – especially girls – are increasingly doubting themselves. The economic downturn and cyber bullying are taking their toll

Daniel Boffey

09, Nov, 2014 @12:04 AM

Article image
There are good reasons why poor British children struggle in school | Barbara Ellen
Let’s congratulate migrant success, but the ‘indigenous’ poor deal with a hard legacy

Barbara Ellen

24, Jun, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
It’s not just the mechanics of sex … children need lessons in life and love | Elly Hanson
Compulsory sex education is a huge step forward and needs to address the pitfalls of our digital age

Elly Hanson

05, Mar, 2017 @12:05 AM