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30 April 2024

The internet has ruined true stories

In the social media age, autobiographical works invariably end in harassment for the individuals depicted. Can real-life storytelling ever be ethical?

By Amelia Tait

Had Grigori Rasputin not been born a Siberian peasant in 1869, had he not ingratiated himself with the Russian aristocracy until he befriended the very tsar and tsarina themselves, had his life and death not been shrouded in mystery – then every modern movie would be at least a few seconds shorter.

“All characters in this work are fictitious,” is the disclaimer tacked on to the end of most major motion pictures. “Any resemblance to any real people, living or dead, is a coincidence.” The line was popularised in the 1930s after Princess Irina Alexandrovna of Russia sued Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for its film Rasputin and the Empress. The princess believed that the character “Princess Natasha” represented her – a jury agreed and found that she had been defamed. From then on, studios started sticking the disclaimer on everything.

Princess Irina was identifiable because she was, you know, a princess – the kind of person that was talked about and written about from birth. People did not figure out that she was “Princess Natasha” because they, say, searched through Rasputin’s Facebook friends for someone who looked like the character or checked whether she’d ever tweeted one of the movie’s lines at the tsar. Had she been an ordinary person in 1932, it’s likely that audiences would have had no way of figuring out her identity.

The same cannot be said today. Tempt people with the words “based on true events” (Rasputin and the Empress went for the tantalising, “A few of the characters are still alive”) and they will find, stalk and harass a story’s subjects in a matter of minutes. Thanks to the internet, the stakes have changed – almost anyone depicted in modern media is easily discoverable with a few clicks. What should you do, then, if you are an artist who wants to create art based on your real life? Should you trust audiences to behave themselves; should you add a new disclaimer? Or should you curtail your creativity? Do you have a duty of care towards the people you write about? Even the ones who abused you?

In April, millions of viewers watched Baby Reindeer, an autobiographical thriller written by and starring the comedian Richard Gadd. The seven-episode series is based on Gadd’s experiences with a real-life stalker, depicted as a character named “Martha” in the show. Martha emails Gadd incessantly and harasses him at work – despite the ordeals he endured, Gadd took pains to paint Martha as severely mentally ill: someone to be pitied as much as feared.

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This nuance, of course, was irrelevant to internet detectives, who quickly began arguing that looking for Martha was a matter of public safety and even “justice”. This was not Gadd’s intention – on Instagram he has pleaded, “Please don’t speculate on who any of the real-life people could be. That’s not the point of our show.” Still, despite Gadd’s claims that “great lengths” were taken to “disguise” the real identity of Martha, her real-life counterpart has seemingly been found.

A woman is now claiming she is afraid for her life after internet sleuths identified her as Martha. The woman once tweeted a joke at Gadd that is similar to one repeatedly uttered in the TV series; she is Scottish and claims to be a lawyer, much like Martha in the show. Audiences also believe the woman’s Facebook writing style is similar to Martha’s – Gadd used his stalker’s real emails in Baby Reindeer.

Audiences have also been trying to uncover the identity of a rapist depicted in the series – and some have even searched Gadd’s Instagram followers to find a trans woman he dated, named “Teri” on the show. Had Gadd foreseen this, would he have changed his script? But had he changed his script, would Baby Reindeer have resonated so strongly with victims of abuse?

It would be nice if we could educate audiences out of this behaviour – if we could ensure that no one would sleuth with the right updated disclaimer (“All characters in this work have Facebook pages but if you message them you are screwed.”). But the truth is: you can’t control everyone on the internet – you can’t even control the part of you that wants to look at “Martha’s” Facebook page yourself. We have to accept that this is human behaviour – even if it is accelerated by machines. So what should an artist do?

I think the answer is easier if that artist is, say, Taylor Alison Swift. Around the same time Baby Reindeer was exploding in popularity, the singer-songwriter released her latest album, The Tortured Poets Department. Swift fans quickly figured out which lyrics they thought referred to which of Swift’s exes, and intrusive and abusive messages towards them ensued (one of her exes, actor Joe Alwyn, turned off his Instagram comments).

“Swifties” have a history of harassing the popstar’s former boyfriends – in 2023, she seemingly warned fans not to cyber-bully her ex John Mayer. Yet she didn’t issue a similar warning this time around. Unlike Gadd, Swift cannot be naive about the impact of her words – while she reserves the right to create art about people that hurt her, I think she should be far more explicit about the fact that these people do not deserve to be hurt in turn.

Still, we’ve already seen that asking isn’t enough – the internet will do what it wants. So if an artist does want to make autobiographical artwork as ethically as possible, without hurting the individuals who inspired it, can they achieve that in the internet age? The answer is probably “no”, or at least, “not unless you compromise your art”. In some cases, I think this compromise is easy – say, if Gadd had changed the wording of the joke that “Martha” tweeted, or if Swift had decided against referencing one of her ex’s favourite bands in a song.

But beyond that, who can say? Who should say? Should there be a Statute of Adaptations, a mandated 30-year hold on the publication of true stories? As if they were sensitive government documents, only visible to the public when enough time has passed (or enough Facebook profiles have become inactive)?

Baby Reindeer did not end with the disclaimer, “All characters in this work are fictitious.” Instead, some text read: “This program is based on real events; however certain characters, names, incidents, locations and dialogue have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes.” Yet the problem may lie where the show started, with the words, “This is a true story.” Perhaps the solution is really simple. Perhaps audiences shouldn’t be informed when something is true – we’ve proved we can’t be trusted.

[See also: Salman Rushdie’s warning bell]

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