What is it about the ordinary human being that draws them so much to scandal and schadenfreude? Why is it that public figures are more likely to make front page news or start #trending when they feud than when they do good?
More importantly should any of the activities that happen outside of a public figure’s working hours or concerning their personal habits (not criminal or illegal obviously) be even considered as news, which serves the public interest or shared on social media?
I mean, when an internet stranger counts the number of times a celebrity has worn the same bra, you start to wonder whether this is an extreme case of boredom or if it's a misguided sense of entitlement.
It makes one wonder if they're also counting the times their colleagues or friends are repeating their undergarments and comparing salaries.
Oh, there's your answer. You can't repeat anything when you're rich apparently.
It starts with something as trivial as a bra. And it fast spirals into incidents where the family members of celebrated faces are being tagged on social media for things they know nothing about.
It seems that when you're famous you can't even break up with your partner in private. The public thinks they deserve blow-by-blow accounts of what led to the split.
Heartbreak is bad enough when you're not in the public eye, how much more worse when you have to explain what went wrong to social media and several publications? I shudder at the thought.
I understand we may all be invested in the lives of our favourite celebrities to a certain extent but cheering on a local fave every time they do well is very different from cyberbullying a personality over their personal life choices.
It always seemed to me that we as the general public think famous people are merely glamorous, money-making robots who are immune to hurtful statements and character assassinations.
Also, it baffles me how people think it's perfectly okay to be explicitly rude to celebrities as if celebs are immune to taking offense.— Gravitas (@AfikaLulo) August 4, 2016
The comments on celebrity social media accounts are sooo rude and offensive and a lot of the time it's totally unprovoked.— Gravitas (@AfikaLulo) August 4, 2016
I think in order to understand the psychology behind celebrity bullying, we need some insight into the culture of fandom first...
Understanding celebrity 'worship'
Psychology Today says that the reason we are so intrigued by celebrities can be partially attributed to the fact that we're all trying to live vicariously through the lives of those we admire.
And in the pursuit of our own success we look to those who have already achieved their goals to figure out their formula for "knowledge, fame and fortune."
The brief article goes on to conclude with the following observation; "We copy the famous, buy dresses that are similar or even the same, we wear our hair the way our idol does in an attempt to capture the glamour we admire.
But we can also read the great writers or study the great painters and musicians to learn their tricks of the trade, in an effort to emulate, and in some rare cases to surpass what came before us."
Taking this into consideration then, maybe our admiration of the rich and famous means that we also see them as infallible and therefore take their failures personally.
Conversely, their personal failures may make some people feel reassured by the fact that celebrities are, in fact, also human and prone to error.
Celebrity reporting versus tabloidisation
I spoke to Herman Elofff, the editor of our sister site Channel24 about the journalistic process he uses when they report on local public figures.
This is what he told me:
"At Channel24 we take the deliberate decision not to spread gossip or fake news. We will only publish a story if we can verify it with a legitimate source or the celebrity themselves. This is challenging in the era of online reporting but we prefer accuracy over speed.
"In general we don’t linger on the negative and sensational type of reporting. We’re not a tabloid and that’s just not our vibe at all. As South Africa’s largest entertainment news website, it’s clear that this approach works for us.
However we wouldn’t avoid an article simply because it’s negative.
Unfortunately the news cycle isn’t always sunshine and roses. That would make our jobs so much easier. When we approach a controversial story or topic we always aim to offer a well-balanced objective article.
We’ve built relationships within the industry and are able to approach sensitive stories frankly and openly with local stars.
It’s undeniable that controversial stories draw more clicks and buzz online than some of the more cheery articles. But it’s all about balance.
You have to be able to give your reader more than just gossip. You want to be a reliable source that they can trust.
The last thing you want to be known for is clickbait. A shocking celebrity story is like blood dripping into shark invested waters. It creates an immediate frenzy and makes a massive splash but when the storm blows over you need to be able to stand by the story you wrote."
A 2011 New York Times analysis on the role of tabloids actually vouched for their importance as a source of information and appears to still be relevant today as it looks at both sides of the coin.
On the one hand, journalists who write for tabloids were heavily critiqued; "Surely only the most degraded, low-minded people could produce this kind of news."
And on the other, the need to report on the lives of celebrities was recognised, stating that tabloid journalists work to reveal the truth behind public facade.
Which has me asking me myself; Do we as the general public feel that public figures ought to forfeit their privacy just for curiosity's sake? Is this social media's role?
I really don't think so.
A few examples:
Ridiculing a celebrity for shopping in the sale section because apparently discounted prices shouldn't apply to you when you're famous.
I always seem to be ready to come to any stars' defense...
She's not necessarily a celebrity but she's a well-known social media personality who constantly has to defend herself on those unforgiving Twitter streets.
This statement was clearly made to beat not only the press to it but Twitter fingers too.
When a famous mom has to take to social media to defend her child in a thread. And they really shouldn't have to.
I’ve always been very careful to let my daughter fight her own battles and learn her own lessons in life.— Azania (@Azania_) October 22, 2017
I'm neither here to villify anyone nor to imply that household names should never be called out for legitimately questionable behaviour.
But I just want to create an wareness about how harmful 140 characters, Photoshop, screenshots taken out of context and Instagram comments can be even to the people who seem like they have it all.
It's important to know the fine line between banter and bullying.
She will read your comment/tweet and sometimes... she will react
There's a quote from Christopher Nolan's Batman: The Dark Knight that always comes to mind when our entertainment heroes are unjustly attacked.
The quote is "you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." What this means is that everyone has a breaking point, where they eventually get tired of always being the "good guy" and they react, especially those in the spotlight.
This probably explains some your faves' Sunday morning Twitter rants. Some.
I find this Urban Dictionary (yes, I had to double check on Urban Dictionary) explanation of this quote most fitting in this case;
"Public opinion can easily change and will eventually change. Many people have the tendency to find faults even when there are none. It can also be easily manipulated. You might adhere to your [values], but you can still be painted as a villain by your enemies (as in the case of what Joker did to Batman)."
Not all local TV personalities are like Nomzamo Mbatha, who joined in when people were roasting her feet.
Celebrities won't always run with the banter like DJ Zinhle when people kept 'applauding' her for being strong after she and AKA publicly split.
Okay, I've seen these "DJ Zinhle strength" tweets. Yazi nisile shemmmmmm ??????????????????????????????????????— #djzinhlecolours (@DJZinhle) May 19, 2016
Your faves won't always furnish you with a sassy clapback like Khanyi Mbau whenever you throw shade at them.
Yes, sometimes the celebrated faces we stan for are little out of touch with the reality of their fellow South Africans. Sometimes they also say rather problematic things.
And while accountability is always necessary and appreciated, do our faves really owe us an explanation for every little thing they do?
Perhaps it's time we approached our social media interactions with public figures the same way we do with colleagues, classmates and other aquaintances. With sensitivity and respect because their social status and wealth don't make them less human than the rest of us.