FEATURE: Behind the Screen: Social Media Trolls and the Impact on Musicians



Behind the Screen

IN THIS PHOTO: Little Mix’s Jesy Nelson was subjected to trolling, online abuse and body shaming, pushing her to attempt suicide/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Social Media Trolls and the Impact on Musicians


I may have addressed this before…

but I do feel like social media is a bit of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, one can share their music and thoughts and, largely, receive positive feedback and connection. One can only imagine what modern life would be like if we had to return to the pre-Twitter/Facebook days. Maybe this is a more common issue with Twitter and Instagram but, more and more, we are having to read about musicians – and people in every field and walk of life – subjected to trolling and cruel insult. This subject is always relevant but, following the broadcast of Little Mix star, Jesy Nelson’s documentary, Odd One Out, it shows how online abuse and trolling can affect someone like her. One would look at her life and success and think that, actually, here is someone who looks happy and enjoys a comfortable life. That is the perception we have of the famous. As her documentary explores, she had to face some very troubling abuse and the toll it had on her was life-changing. The Guardian explain more in their review:

She was barely 20 years old. She talks candidly about how this onslaught chipped away at not only her self-esteem, but her sense of who she was. She can barely watch footage of herself from that time, or look at pictures. She had been happy. As Jesy from Little Mix, she was miserable, constantly questioning herself and struggling with what sounds like an eating disorder. Eventually, she attempted suicide.

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

This is a personal story and Nelson is clearly still dealing with the suffering she endured as the target of such horrible online abuse. She has a cushion over her lap as she is interviewed. She worries how she looks.

There is a sense that this documentary is part of the therapeutic process; she is not on the other side of the bullying yet and, at times, that makes it difficult to watch. Her mother talks movingly about how much she wishes she could have her pre-fame daughter back. Her bandmates are frank about how her insecurities, amplified beyond common sense or rationality, can make her “a bit of a nightmare”. Her boyfriend Chris Hughes, himself a product of the fame factory (in his case, Love Island), wishes she could be more comfortable in her skin. Even in the present day, glammed up for a video shoot, she refers to herself as “a fat, ugly rat”.

It is troubling reading these words and wondering what it must have been like for Nelson! There is no justification for such slurs and comments and, in an industry where we put so much pressure on artists, life is hard enough without having to endure such disgusting remarks. Not only will the documentary help bring about awareness, but it will resonate with other artists. Before asking whether we need to do more, Nelson spoke about her plight and how, yeas later, she is in a better place:

“…At about 1am, a member of The X Factor team found Nelson crying alone and asked why she was so upset. A couple of days later, she was asked to explain again – on camera. She didn’t want to do it. “They told me it wasn’t recorded, and it was.”

A few weeks later, the clip of Nelson in tears over “a few nasty comments” was broadcast before Little Mix’s performance, the reality TV playbook of “sad piano” switching to upbeat pop music when Thirlwall comforts her: an uplifting moment of girl power. From then on, that was Nelson’s public narrative.

After the clip presented her as Little Mix’s weakest link, the abuse snowballed. “It was like as soon as people knew that it was really affecting me, they wanted to do it more.” Nelson had been bullied at school, to the point of stress-induced alopecia – “but this wasn’t playground stuff”.

She was shocked by the cruelty from adults – some clearly parents. “Obviously everyone sits in their living room and will see someone on TV and make a comment. But to actually pick up your phone and go: ‘I’m going to make sure this girl sees it’ – even if they didn’t think I was going to see it – you have no idea the effect that one comment will have.”

Nelson became “obsessed” with reading criticism. The praise didn’t register. “It only got worse when I got Twitter. And that led to the Daily Mail, and reading the [below the line] comments – the worst you can read about yourself. It was like I purposely wanted to hurt myself.”

“I had a routine of waking up, going on Twitter, searching for the worst things I could about myself. I’d type in the search bar: ‘Jesy fat’, or ‘Jesy ugly’, and see what would come up. Sometimes I didn’t even need to do that, I’d just write ‘Jesy’ and then I’d see all the horrible things. Everyone told me to ignore it – but it was like an addiction.”


PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

Talking to other young people who have experienced online abuse made her feel less alone. “A lot of people think ‘stop moaning’, but until you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to understand – and it doesn’t just happen to people in the limelight. There’s so many people struggling with social media and online trolling. People need to know about the effects it has.”

The turnaround in five years, she agrees, is remarkable: now, as Little Mix work on their sixth album, Nelson is less conscious of her weight, her appearance, what she’s eating – even what is being said about her. To shoot the documentary, she returned to Twitter, and discovered some new slurs. “I didn’t even know some people said that about me, but it’s because I don’t look for it – and also, I. Don’t. Care,” she says, leaning forward in her chair”.

I do sincerely hope Nelson is in a better head-space now and that she is being guarded. I do wonder how many other musicians around the world are having to face such abuse. Music is so much about image, especially for women, and there are corners of the Internet where trolls fester and there is nothing but hatred. Big artists will always receive more kindness and positive words than negative – it is always the cruelty and abuse that cuts deeper than anything else. The fact we have social media, in many ways, is good. We can express ourselves and share fantastic music with the click of the mouse. The worst aspect of social media is the fact anyone can have their say and do what they like.

 PHOTO CREDIT: @mxsh/Unsplash

I know how hard it would be to detect trolls and make sure they are banned but, with artists pushing themselves to the point of suicide (and beyond), does more need to be done?! I think anyone caught attacking artists need to be banned and, when we do see someone struggling, labels need to do more. It seems like, in the case of Jesy Nelson, she had to keep a lot of her hurt to herself; maybe fearing her career would be compromised if she was open. I do think there is too much pressure on artists to look a certain way and, if they are natural and like you and me, they are pushed down. It is odd to see real and natural people like Nelson attacked; people we can relate to and are closer to us than anyone in music. Is it a case of people forging their own self-loathing and insecurities onto artists? Maybe trolls want their artists to be plastic and super-skinny and, when we see deviation and something separate, they create hostility. The anonymity social media provides means there is no real down-side when it comes to abuse. I think platforms like Twitter need to be tougher. Charities like the Samaritans do sterling work; maybe messaging trolls and making them aware of the impact of their words would help them change their ways, perhaps? A lot of work is being done by social media companies to reduce trolling and abuse but only it only takes a few comments to make a huge impact.

 PHOTO CREDIT: @priscilladupreez/Unsplash

I do not think we understand the damage abuse can cause. Most of us do not face it but, even if you do and are thick-skinned, it still takes its toll. Artists are being trolled about their looks, weight and music and this should not go unchallenged. There have been articles published that ask how we can reduce trolling and protect people – from musicians to children – and ensure social media and the Internet is a safer and nicer space. Maybe, as I said, it is hard to police and enforce laws where anyone caught trolling is banned. Some might say that is severe and, as we are entitled to free speech, where do we draw the line – is it okay to attack people like Donald Trump and Piers Morgan (yes!) and not musicians. In a lot of cases, you get celebrities and politician stirring things and stepping out of line, but I guess we need to apply rules to those who abuse them. I think there is a big difference between attacking artists without provocation and the reaction controversial figures receive when they say something divisive or foolish. There are so many artists who do not come forward or speak out because of the pain or a feeling that, if they do, they might be judged. Trolls are, in essence, bullies - and it is not something that should be tolerated. I think we need to draw guidelines up when it comes to trolling because there is a gap between innocuous or misconstrued comments and plain offence. Let’s hope we will see fewer cases of trolling and abuse against musicians because, even if one is not aware, those words typed from the protection of a computer…  


PHOTO CREDIT: @stefanspassov/Unsplash

CAN cut deep!