Since the advent of the social media age, thousands of people across the world have experienced the phenomenon of “going viral” and accruing a great deal of fame in a very short time. Senior Lecturer in the School of the Arts & Media at UNSW, Dr Emma Jane, says this sudden rise to fame can lead to highly negative emotions.

“While social media fame is generally considered desirable, the lived experience of having a high – or even moderate – public profile can be extremely unsettling for many people,” Dr Jane says.

“This has a lot to do with the fact that many people think that directing vitriol at celebrities is ethically acceptable behaviour – or at least very different behaviour to attacking ‘ordinary’ people.

The UNSW academic says there is assumption high-profile public figures are accustomed to, unlikely to be injured by, and deserving of intense criticism because of their symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationships with the media.

“In other words, online hate is seen by many people as a necessary – and to-be-expected – consequence of being in the fame game. This dynamic is complicated, however, by unprecedented rises in the celebritisation of ‘ordinary’ people via the internet and media genres such as reality television,” she says. 

“Directing vitriol at these sorts of ‘amateur’ or ‘accidental’ celebrities raises different ethical issues because it is likely that such people are more psychologically, physically and financially vulnerable to hate campaigns, than seasoned celebrities.”

Risks for young athletes

For athletes, the ability to make a name for themselves before they make it big on the field can open a lot of doors for them, but it also comes with a lot of risks. UNSW Law and Psychology student Matilda McDonell, who also plays for the Giants in the Suncorp Super Netball, understands the dangers associated with social media.

“We get social media lessons from the media team at Giants and always get advice from the senior players as to what is appropriate to post,” she says.

“We have lots of young girls following us, so it's important that we're good role models for them and it's also super important that we uphold the club values of respect and dedication to our codes. So that means no photos of drinking and (making sure we wear) appropriate clothing. It's almost like our social media accounts are a brand and we have to present that brand as well as we possibly can.”

UNSW Ben Lexcen scholar Matilda McDonell is aware of the risks athletes face on social media
UNSW Ben Lexcen scholar Matilda McDonell is aware of the risks athletes face on social media

The (even) darker side of social media fame

Lurking deeper in the corners of the internet however, are dangers even darker than the highs and lows of social media fame and the risk of losing a contract. They are the skulkers of social media known as trolls.

When Channel 7’s Facebook page posted a photo of AFLW star Tayla Harris and her famous kicking action, the trolls came out in force. From sexually explicit comments, to ones degrading her footballing ability, to those masking their misogyny with concern for her welfare, the photo was flooded with comments. Channel 7 removed the photo, but after backlash from fans eventually reposted it.

While all athletes are subject to criticism online, there is a particular kind of criticism levelled at female athletes that the Harris furore highlighted.

“Unfortunately, women are attacked online for being either too normatively ‘sexy’ or not normatively ‘sexy’ enough,” Dr Jane says.

“It’s a lose/lose situation. Consider, too, the fact that the most common insult aimed a woman online is to call her some variation of fat, ugly and slutty. Men simply aren’t judged by their appearances and sexual activity the way women are.

Finding a solution

The UNSW academic says tech giants aren’t helping the situation, and policy makers are making matters worse by rushing through poorly considered measures - classic examples of “penal populism”.

“Consider Scott Morrison’s recent election promise to increase the maximum penalties from three to five years for people who use a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence under section 474.17 of the Criminal Code Act 1995,” Dr Jane says.

“Given that this particular law is old and hardly ever used in the context of online abuse, it’s hard to see how upping the maximum penalty in this way is going to help.”

From McDonell’s point of view, the easiest way to arm herself against potential abuse is not to engage with it.

“We just get told not to read it all,” she says.

“There's no point in getting into stuff that isn't even accurate and makes you feel down about yourself or teammates.

“Social media can be really negative sometimes if we lose a match, because people are trying to analyse what and where it went wrong. Unfortunately, some players do read it, especially younger ones, and it really affects self-esteem. But it can also be a massive driving point in terms of trying to prove other people wrong.

“Best advice is to just not even go there, or if you do go chat to the coaches about what your strengths and weaknesses were in that game and where the areas you need build on are.”