Social media gossiping: a reality check

Kids whispering to each other. According to the writer gossiping especially on can magnify rumours and leave a digital foot print.
Kids whispering to each other. According to the writer gossiping especially on can magnify rumours and leave a digital foot print.

It was the urgency of the phone text, sent about an hour before midnight, that reminded me how quickly many of us are back-pedalling into thinly-veiled cruelty, thanks to the soporific magnetism of technology.

In an age of instant clicks and faceless texts, it’s little wonder that we adults — and our children, in particular — need a reality check about the dangers of gossip.

The young adult in question had reached out to me one weekend after an alleged flurry of information shared by one (or a few, who knows?) good-for-nothing gossip girl (or lad) with time and trouble on her (or his) hands.

The narrative was simple, but effective: the young adult was accused, in Whatsapp whispers, of nefarious deeds.

That the whispered allegations were false isn’t the point — which is why defamation law exists.

By the time the young adult had heard about the allegations — which had somehow travelled, reportedly, from phone X, to phone Y, probably phone Z and thence verbally, to fresh sets of ears, the people who knew about the fictitious deeds numbered at least several, but probably more.

And all the while, the young adult had been blissfully unaware.

Benjamin Franklin famously said: “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and one bad one to lose it.”

In the social media age, it takes one bad apple — or a person with a bone to pick, a resentment to chew, a bored gap to fill — to unravel a reputation faster than boiling a kettle.

“As I often tell children, containing gossip is like squeezing a tube of toothpaste, then trying to put it back inside,” explains Phyllis L Fagell of the Washington Post.

“Or like emptying a pillowcase full of feathers on a windy day, then expecting to retrieve each one. It’s impossible.”

She relates the story of a colleague whose 14-year-old daughter wouldn’t leave her room after someone had started a rumour about her sending questionable photos to a friend’s boyfriend.

“It wasn’t true, but that provided little comfort.

“As the story began circulating, the girl started to receive accusatory, hostile texts.”

Gossip, says Fagell, can be “one of the most insidious forms of bullying.

“For starters, it’s difficult to trace its trajectory, and disputing it doesn’t make it dissipate.

“The victim may feel wrongly characterised and angry, hurt or helpless.

“There can be very real repercussions, from school refusal to depression.”

As parents and adults, most of us are “out of practice” when it comes to behaviour that can damage someone’s reputation, she says.

When children are targeted, however, we may often feel hopeless — but the good news is that we are not powerless.

Fagell provides a very useful set of positive interventions for anyone who needs to help someone at the sharp end of a gossip stick.

From plucking them out of the muck by offering perspective and similar anecdotes, to ways of managing the fallout, it’s vital to know that this isn’t, despite appearances to the contrary, the end of the world.

The danger, which wasn’t there before, is social networking — or antisocial networking, as she calls it.

“Social media can magnify rumours and leave a digital footprint.”

Apart from addressing the issues, using some of Fagell’s excellent tools and waiting for the storm to pass, I also advised the young adult to remember this: the best defence against anything external is to better yourself.

Focusing on what makes you stronger, smarter, happier and more secure is like building an extra moat around your personal castle, I explained to her.

And adopting the “eye for an eye approach” is pointless too, I believe, because ultimately, as Dr Alex Lickerman of Psychology Today says, when we denigrate or shame others, we are doing it to ourselves.

Instead, build a foundation for any future fallout.

And while the frenemies at the gate are still yodelling their insults, you’re fortifying your castle, one hard-earned brick at a time.

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