On my radar: No one can hear you scream in cyberspace

When Zayn Malik dropped out of One Direction, it generated a storm of digital frothiness. Naming and shaming has moved into the digital realm

Last week, two days before the opening concert of the One Direction South African tour, Zayn Malik dropped a bombshell on his global fanbase – 60?million mostly teenage girls known as “Directioners”.

After five years of being part of one of the world’s biggest boy bands, Malik announced he was leaving the group with the following explanation: “I am leaving because I want to be a normal 22-year-old who is able to relax and have some private time out of the spotlight.”

His statement was followed by much wailing and gnashing of teeth, not to mention a few threats of suicide thrown in for good measure (as is common protocol from an obsessive teen fan base).

Speculation about the real reason Malik quit the band followed quickly. Malik was holidaying in Phuket when pictures of the singer (who is engaged to Perrie Edwards) hugging and holding hands with Lauren Richardson went viral. The social-media storm resulted in Malik flying home for “crisis talks” with his fiancée, followed by his departure from the band.

Malik was, unsurprisingly, bombarded on social media, as were both his fiancée and the “Jezebel” blonde, Richardson. Fans accused Edwards of being “the Yoko Ono” of One Direction, referring to John Lennon’s widow, who was blamed for the break-up of the Beatles. Insults and death threats were hurled at Richardson on Twitter. Just one of the more charming tweets from a fan read: “Who wants to stab Lauren Richardson??? I do I do I do.”

Malik responded to his 14.4?million followers with a tweet (his last at the time of writing) that read: “I’m 22-years-old?...?I love a girl named Perrie Edwards. And there’s a lot of jealous f**ks in this world. I’m sorry for what it looks like x.”

In response to Malik’s departure, Time magazine published an article about how social media has changed the world of pop. Entertainment journalist Daniel D’Addario wrote that, while the teen idol phenomenon has been with us for half a century, today’s stars “are dealing with an endless stream of commentary from fans who are at a tender age that encourages both high passion and little emotional modulation”.

Their vitriol and venom on Twitter is not for the faint-hearted.

Two books on public shaming in the digital era have recently been published: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (Picador), and Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool by Jennifer Jacquet (Alien Lane). Digital shame – and the perverse pleasure of digital shaming – it seems, are no longer a haphazard by-product of our social-media discourse, but an established behavioural norm.

Parents deal with cyberbullying daily, but digital shame and shaming is not limited to the cyber schoolyard or the frenzied frothing of a teenage fan.

Laurence Scott, writing for FT Weekend, muses that Ronson’s book is “an account of how we’ve begun to use the internet to police one another. Shame isn’t so much a feeling as a crime scene. Everyone is a suspect; everyone is a victim.”

What Scott is alluding to is the growing trend of people being fired after being caught surreptitiously on camera when they are blissfully unaware they are being watched/recorded/policed – this form of digital shaming usually takes place in a relaxed social environment.

This is a step up from people being fired for tweeting or posting inappropriate comments in their personal capacity, as was the case with Justine Sacco (also interviewed in Ronson’s book), who spawned the viral hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet after her misguided tweet about Aids and Africa. She was fired for that tweet.

In today’s world, your online behaviour is being increasingly linked to your employer’s brand reputation. But is that fair? Scott writes: “The idea that an employee is, in all aspects of their life, the moral representative of their employer is a dangerous one for any worker living under the scrutiny of digital life.”

In 2015, social-media law finally comes of age after a decade without boundaries or self-regulation. Some would say it is about time that the Twitter trolls were brought to book or at least made more mindful of the hurt they dispense so casually – but there is also a danger of the pendulum swinging back too far.

The pack mentality of online policing is as distasteful as the mindless behaviour of those who show their prejudice in 140 characters, or when they think they’re siding with like-minded individuals. Ronson quite aptly compares digital shaming to public floggings that occurred centuries ago.

Shortly after Malik announced his departure, he told a friend: “I don’t want to live a life where everything I do is put on the internet and dissected. I want to disappear for a while. I want to live a normal life. I’m going to be happier.”

I have no doubt he will be. As he has discovered, in cyberspace, no one can hear you scream.

Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit fluxtrends.com

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