Last week, "Stranger Things" actress Millie Bobby Brown became the latest name in a string of pop culture figures who left social media after sustaining harassment. This was preceded most recently by actress Kelly Marie Tran, who left Instagram after receiving hateful comments following her role in "The Last Jedi." Brown deleted her personal Twitter account following the explosion of a meme that depicted her as homophobic. The memes took Brown’s photos and reworked them to look like Snapchats, in which it appeared that she used slurs or expressed a murderous desire to kill queer people. The meme was supposed to be ironic, and was largely perpetuated by queer individuals. Ultimately, it was harmful to both Brown and her social image, resulting in her self-removal from Twitter.
The incident was covered from a variety of angles, but a cursory glance over news stories of the event on Twitter reveals a uniting factor: commenters repeatedly iterated variations of “the internet is just like this, what did she expect?”
I take the most issue with the first comment. Saying that internet spaces are awful in response to incidents of harassment abdicates blame from those who perpetuate harmful content. “What did she expect?” absolves blame from the individual and sounds an awful lot like victim-blaming rhetoric. I can get on board with the sentiment that, at a base level, social media and the internet can be an awful space to be in. However, we have to be careful with our language. Blaming a vague entity as opposed to the individuals that populate it ultimately shifts blame away from netizens that harass others. Blaming the internet and the victim for existing on the internet doesn’t get us anywhere. All it does is shift blame away from those who deserve it.
Furthermore, I don’t believe the internet or social media as a whole are inherently toxic. I do, however, believe they allow for the dissemination of harmful content. I also believe this isn’t something we have to take at face value. The internet can be an awful place, but we shouldn’t accept this and move on. If we continue to substantiate statements that assert the internet is simply an awful place, it reinforces the immutability of internet toxicity.
The reality is that we can take active steps to call out internet harassment and actively work to make the internet a better place. One example of this followed Tran’s departure from Instagram; after she left, there was an outpouring of support from fans on Twitter who posted fan art of Tran and her "The Last Jedi" character, Rose Tico, using the hashtag #fanartforRose. The tag was filled with an outpouring of support. The project was an attempt to counteract the hateful comments Tran received for her role at the hands of a vocal minority of Star Wars fans. In a similar fashion, fans tweeted supportive messages to Brown’s anti-bullying Twitter account following last week’s incident.
While the internet can be an awful place, it isn’t something that we have to accept and it certainly doesn’t excuse harassment. As netizens, we have a responsibility to make the internet a better place. Stranger things have been accomplished in the past.