Gabby Douglas, gold medal-winning gymnast, seemed confused when a reporter at the Olympics started asking her questions right after her final routine in Rio, questions that had nothing to do with her performance.
The reporter wanted Douglas to answer a wave of petty criticism, much of it online, targeting Douglas’ hair, facial expressions and hand gestures during the Games. Douglas started to tear up as she gave her response. “I tried to stay off the Internet,” she said. “It was hurtful. It was hurtful. It was. It’s been kind of a lot to deal with.”
Douglas is one of several high-profile individuals who have avoided or quit social media – particularly Twitter – recently, often because of waves of abuse, prompted by the “wrong” hair, by appearing in the “Ghostbusters” reboot or by supporting the wrong romantic pairing of two characters in a fictional television show.
Here’s a roundup from just the past month:
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Leslie Jones: The “Ghostbusters” actress temporarily left Twitter days after the release of her movie, following a particularly intense wave of racist abuse. As Jones tweeted image after image of the hateful things people were sending her way, Twitter came under increasing pressure, as it has before, to do something about it. Although Twitter’s rules ban “harassment” and “hateful conduct,” the social media company has long been criticized for its slow, inconsistent enforcement of its own policies.
Eventually Twitter did respond, deleting several of the worst tweets Jones received and permanently banning some accounts. Among those banned was Milo Yiannopoulos, a Breitbart writer who often used his once-popular Twitter account to mock his ideological enemies – and who had tweeted making fun of Jones’ response, calling her “barely literate.”
Twitter took the unusual step of releasing a statement that addressed the abuse Jones faced, promising changes to Twitter’s hateful conduct policy and its abuse reporting system “in the coming weeks.”
Meanwhile, Jones has returned to Twitter. And her tweets about the Olympics were so successful that NBC (for which Jones also works) ended up flying her to Rio so that she could live-tweet the Games in person.
Normani Kordei: The Fifth Harmony singer announced that she was “taking a break” from Twitter in August, for depressing and familiar reasons: “Over the course of this last week and especially over the last 48 hours, I’ve not just been cyber bullied, I’ve been racially cyber bullied with tweets and pictures so horrific and racially charged that I can’t subject myself any longer to the hate.”
“I’m not the first black female celebrity to deal with this and I’m sure I won’t be the last,” she wrote, before thanking Twitter for “immediately jumping into action.”
According to the Cut, the bullying began after Kordei gave an interview in which she was asked to describe her Fifth Harmony bandmates. Fans weren’t satisfied with the less-thorough answer she gave for Camila Cabello: “Let’s see. Camila. Very quirky. Yeah, very quirky. Cute.”
The answer prompted headlines questioning whether the two women were “feuding.” The band’s own fan base then began to send bullying, racist tweets at Kordei. Although many of those tweets were eventually deleted, they included tweets saying that the singer “deserved to be lynched,” and several throwing racial slurs at Kordei, according to the New York Times.
Lauren Zuke: A storyboard artist on “Steven Universe,” she quit Twitter Aug. 12 after a subset of the children’s show’s online fandom attacked her over an apparent disagreement about a ship – or romantic pairing of two characters from the show. Zuke deleted her Twitter account over the weekend, right after writing: “I don’t want to be accessible to thousands of people who think because I work on a TV show that I owe them myself all the time,” i09 reported. Zuke hasn’t returned to Twitter and did not respond to a request for an interview from us.
Justin Bieber: Bieber deleted his Instagram account, with 80 million followers, after a public social media fight with Selena Gomez and a bunch of his own fans. The fight was apparently about Sofia Richie, with whom Bieber is rumored to be in a relationship. The online altercation included him threatening, after fans left nasty comments on a photo he posted, to take the account private “if you guys don’t stop the hate this is getting out of hand” and Gomez acknowledging that her own comments on Bieber’s account were “selfish and pointless.”
Gabby Douglas: Douglas won the individual all-around in the 2012 Olympics. Since then, but particularly in the past few weeks, she’s had her hair and her patriotism questioned by Olympics fans online.
Among the many criticisms: that she stood at attention instead of with her hand over her heart during the national anthem; that she didn’t look cheerful enough as two teammates competed; that her hair was not pleasant enough to look at. Douglas had a relatively disappointing trip to the 2016 Olympics as a gymnast, but it was the endless, petty criticism that drove her to tears.
Washington Post reporter Liz Clarke was at the news conference when another reporter questioned Douglas about the Internet criticism. Clarke wrote: “When Michael Phelps is hailed for his menacing scowl or celebrated for his during-anthem guffaws, one wonders what exactly inspires such anonymous shots at another Olympic champion such as Douglas.
“Putting aside such motivations for a moment, forcing Douglas to answer such baseless critiques in the moments following her final competition seemed cruel and unusual.”
Meanwhile, many of Douglas’ supporters have rallied to show love for the gymnast online, led somewhat fittingly by – Leslie Jones.