Trial by Social Media
The upbeat social media buzz around popular reality TV show Strictly Come Dancing took a turn for the worse this week, after celebrity contestant Seann Walsh was photographed kissing his professional partner Katya Jones. To the casual observer, this is simply standard fare for the tabloid press; a storm in a tea cup and nothing of note. However, four days after publication the story has grown from celebrity tittle-tattle to a major topic of national debate. This is because of several reasons. Mr Walsh was at the time when the picture was taken, in a long-term relationship. Katya Jones is married to fellow Strictly Come Dancing professional dancer, Neil Jones. Subsequently, actress Rebecca Humphries split up with Seann Walsh and released a statement online citing deficiencies in the five-year relationship and alluding to “controlling” behaviour. It is this later aspect, rather than just faux prurient outrage by the tabloids about the celebrity indiscretion, which has made this “story” persist. It links into the ongoing debate over “toxic masculinity” and the #MeToo movement.
I have no interest in dissecting or commenting on in any depth, the former relationship between Rebecca Humphries and Seann Walsh, nor the actual drunken kiss that started this furore. The only information we have on these matters is anecdotal and has been refracted through the prism of the tabloid press. Nuance and facts are conspicuously absent. But none of that is relevant because we live in an age where we are regularly presented with a “news story” that is designed to make us angry and encouraged to sake a side. This mindset dominates political and social debate and is the ruination of western society. As a nation we are actively participating and enabling a parasitical tabloid culture, which is harmful to not only those who are the “story”, but also to ourselves with the erosion of empathy and critical thinking. The hypocrisy of a media driven “public shaming” with “showbiz journalism” taking the moral high ground is utterly reprehensible. And then there is the blunt tool that is the internet lynch mob and the all too common “trial by social media” to consider. Something that is becoming increasingly weaponised by those entities with a political agenda.
The BBC decided to head off this ongoing controversy last night as Strictly Come Dancing is their flagship Saturday night family entertainment show, with viewing figures of 9 million. Hence Seann Walsh and Katya Jones made an embarrassing appearance on Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two, to obliquely apologies for the situation. However, I’m not so sure if it has done any good because this entire matter is no longer being driven by either Mr Walsh or Ms Humphries. This debacle is now a “cause” and there are clearly defined sides fighting wider ideological points, along with a percentage of professional malcontents who simply thrive on public discord. If the levels of “outrage” do not subside and the BBC gets cold feet, then we could see Mr Walsh either step down from the show or be removed. This would then make him a martyr for those in the opposite camp of the #MeToo movement and would more than likely result in an unjust backlash against Rebecca Humphries.
It’s a curious thing how the internet and social media with all it’s potential to breakdown barriers and be a force for good in the world, has often just pandered to the worst aspects of the human nature. It has fed our prejudices, depersonalised our interactions with others and turned other people’s misery into disposable entertainment. Too many people viewing via their own bespoke online portal, see life as something happening in a “petri dish”, removed and sperate from themselves. Then there is the entire tabloid “showbiz” industry that is inherently unethical and repellent, growing rich off suffering that they’ve often contrived. Yet the market for such material seems to be voracious, so it would be naïve of me to simply pooh-pooh it with a glib moral soundbite. However, I think as a society we need to think long and hard about the road we’re following. The destination doesn’t look too promising. But like any big change, it starts with a small step and that first step is down to us. The next time a salacious story appears in your social media timeline, inviting you to pick a team and start screaming, just take a breath and move along. It is not imperative to have an opinion on everything, nor wise to make snap judgments. Most of us are flawed and wanting in some respect. And remember that people such as Seann Walsh and Rebecca Humphries are not abstractions but flesh and blood, with feelings and family. Would you want what they are currently enduring to happen to you?