How the Internet redefines gossip, scandal, and controversy
words and illustrations by Sarah Wool, guest contributor
My Facebook account recently informed me that two of my acquaintances had ended a years-long relationship. The girl wrote in her status about a need to “find a new boyfriend, preferably one who doesn’t cheat,” something she never would have told me directly. This was an internet-specific confession, written for no one in particular but for everyone in general. That I was privy to this snarky tidbit made me feel like a voyeur caught combing the secret files of someone else’s life—I instantly became involved in her relationship woes. And it’s not the first time the Internet has presented me with such uncomfortably intimate information. Two kids from my high school like to bicker through online “status updates.” For example: Katie* is like, “How can somebody change so quickly?” might be countered with Sam* thinks bitches need to stop overreacting. (*Names have been changed.)
But what happens when every move in a relationship is documented without the consent of either significant other? Such was the case of Chris Brown and Rihanna, two young pop stars involved in an ugly domestic violence scandal this spring. Since news of the violence hit the Internet, the two have been scrutinized endlessly. Their situation has been publicized on a gargantuan scale: the details of the case have been given to the entire online world, not just a web of Facebook friends or Twitter followers.
So when did people start taking their arguments to the web? In 1955, famous abstract expressionist painter Robert Motherwell asserted that “the capacity to give and to receive passion is limited. The rituals are so often obsolete and corrupt, out of accord with what we really know and feel.” Nearly sixty years later, the rituals are so diverse and prolific that passion, rage, and happiness can be expressed instantaneously with a Facebook status update or a Twitter tweet. But since today’s modes of expression and reporting are even more broken and less authentic, Motherwell’s assertion may in fact have been an eerie harbinger of the present.
When web sites are under pressure to cover news stories as they occur, something like a celebrity domestic violence trial can be dealt with in the same haphazard, frivolous manner as, say, “Lindsay Lohan’s Drunken Blackout!” Furthermore, uncensored and often anonymous commenters have free reign to pick over emotionally charged issues, often without information about the subjects they choose to discuss. Today, people constantly catalogue and discuss passionate and real emotions online, and the effect on audiences can vary greatly from positive to negative.
The Chris Brown-Rihanna case is a paradigmatic one in an age of online emoting. A “Chris Brown and Rihanna” search on Youtube yields dozens of report-and-response videos, and blog media has covered the case from its start to Brown’s August 25 sentencing (five years of probation, 180 days of community service). Some online reports have treated the case flippantly, others somberly. In perhaps the most controversial use of the Internet, many have tried to interpret the causes and implications of the abuse.
Many websites uploaded a graphic picture of Rihanna’s battered face, warped by contusions and swollen cuts. For commenters, the photo was both repulsive and alluring. Yet the posting itself represents a violation of victim privacy. The Rolling Stone website reported on September 11 that “two [Los Angeles Police] officers have been placed on leave following an internal investigation into how a photograph of a battered Rihanna from her February 8 altercation with Chris Brown somehow fell into the hands of gossip site TMZ.com.” The report insinuates that the photo inexplicably surfaced on TMZ one day. Of course, online reader-consumers are always athirst for more “private” information on a scandal. When popular celebrities are involved in a mess, it seems more extreme and interesting than cases involving “regular” people, so readers want all the raw details.
As Mark Saviano, the statistical and technical director for the Psychology Department at Colorado College, explains to me, Internet communication and news coverage is usually more extreme than person-to-person interactions, because people online have a false sense of privacy. Thus, people who post and comment can expose others to an unfiltered view of themselves. Saviano says that in real life interactions, we adjust communication depending on audience; online, however, we forgo this self-censorship and present the same message to all readers regardless of our relationship to them. Saviano also tells me that people often forget that things posted online are enduring; when someone posts an article or a visual documentation of the effects of physical abuse, it is more than simply a news report. It becomes an archive of the Internet’s involvement in a personal case of intimate partner violence.
Some online media focused on the case have popularized damaging opinions about its cause and significance. As Newsweek reporter Raina Kelley explains in a March 9 article:
“We’ve all heard that this [abuse case] should be a ‘teachable moment’—a chance to talk about domestic violence. [But when] you tune into all the talk about Rihanna and Chris Brown, it’s scary how the same persistent domestic-violence myths continue to be perpetuated. Celebrity scandals may have a short shelf life, but what we teach kids about domestic violence will last forever.”
Kelley explains the dangers of media claims that Rihanna provoked Brown (“There isn’t a verbal argument that should ‘spark’ or ‘provoke’ an attack of the kind that leaves one person with wounds that require medical attention”), that he made a mistake (“You do not accidentally give someone black eyes, a broken nose and a split lip”), and that he is sorry (“Experts will tell you that domestic violence is an escalating series of attacks [not fights] designed to increase a victim’s dependence on her abuser”). Media treatment of a subject like abuse has the power to affect the opinions and actions of malleable readers. The online media allows readers to be more than voyeurs or confidants; readers are also asked to provide their own commentary on articles and updates. We are given the idea that everyone is not only allowed to comment, but entitled to a public opinion, making expert and ignorant commenters equally important and visible.
Saviano asserts that “nothing is wholly positive or negative.” The case of Rihanna and Chris Brown could be negative for children who try to model the behaviors of others, like celebrity idols. Yet virtually everything we see is a model. People watch things happen (or hear about things happening, in reports or comments), and some of them learn from these examples while others are unaffected. But Saviano points out that celebrities are especially influential as models because the “halo effect” can take away some of the negative connotations of a star’s abusive behavior. Saviano explains that celebrities have a global positive connotation; people see one positive quality in a celebrity—beauty, wealth, influence—and generalize that quality to assume that the person is good all-around (hence the “halo”). So if Chris Brown wears (or wore) a halo, some of his bad behavior was probably diluted. And even if the halo is completely gone, everyone likes to hear about a villain.
There are some gains to be had from the case’s massive online publicity. Saviano points out that people feel more confident and comfortable about their personal experiences when they see commonalities in the experiences of others. For example, a domestic violence victim or perpetrator may find solace in finding similarities between the Brown-Rihanna case and his or her own situation. In the end, the case is about our treatment of, and reaction to, the personal experiences of other human beings.
Increased public attention to difficult issues is never wholly bad. Domestic violence should be discussed in a way that allows individuals to learn and decide what is acceptable and unacceptable in a partnership. Bringing up taboo subjects and encouraging their public discussion allows us to ruminate on serious, widespread problems and perhaps gives us incentive to learn more about such problems. The American Institute on Domestic Violence reports that 85 to 95 percent of all domestic violence victims are female, and that 5.3 million women are abused each year. If the Internet can get people to band together and confront domestic abuse, then all the discussion is worthwhile. These precarious cases should be handled with care, however. The nature of the information being reported should be considered carefully. The media continues to fawn over Chris and Rihanna’s ongoing drama, and so does the public. If anything, the proliferation of commentary shows that there is not always a strict dichotomy between being informed and being ignorant, between helpful and hurtful input. Technology blurs the meaning and wexpression of emotions and public opinion. We take from it what we choose to take. ~