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1 September 2016updated 01 Jul 2021 12:13pm

What it’s like to be called out by a celebrity on Twitter

Social media allows celebrities and fans unprecedented levels of interaction, but what happens when it all turns ugly? 

By Amelia Tait

When you tweet to JK Rowling, you never imagine that she’ll actually see it. Despite the ostensible accessibility of celebrities on Twitter, their overcrowded mentions and busy schedules mean they don’t read most of the 140-character messages directed towards them. Yet sometimes, of course, they do. And sometimes they retweet these messages for their own followers to see and share.

“Immediately after she retweeted my original tweet my notifications blew up,” says Isobel Sweeney, an 18-year-old English literature student from Merseyside who tweeted at Rowling to “Fuck off” after the author shared her opinions on Jeremy Corbyn yesterday. “I think I got somewhere in the region of about fifty replies, most were just fans of Rowling who were offended that I’d disagreed with her.”

A quick glance through the other tweets JK Rowling retweeted yesterday shows that their authors also received online hate. One was called a “foul, loathsome evil little cockroach”, another labelled a “commie twat” and an “embarrassment”. When Rowling shared a tweet saying Corbyn was like Dumbledore, the tweeter deleted their message and set their account to private. Rowling has 8.07 million Twitter followers. The tweeter in question has 78.

It must be exhausting to be JK Rowling on Twitter and receive vitriol and threats merely for having an opinion. But when Rowling retweets people who send her hate, or worse, people who just disagree with her, she opens them up to an army of fans ready to dish out vitriol in return. The author herself is aware of this, as yesterday she blocked out the name and picture of a person who sent her a positive tweet before sharing it, writing: “I feel I have to remove this person’s avi because I know the hate she’ll get. Think that through for a moment.”

Rowling also blocked out Sweeney’s name when she shared a second tweet from her account, so she is again presumably aware of the impact she can and did have. Yet yesterday and today she has continued to share people’s tweets with their names clearly visible. But so what, right? If you tweet at JK Rowling, especially hatefully, don’t you open yourself up to this, 78 followers or not?

Perhaps, but not all celebrities just call out people who “@” them. Some actually search for their own names and retweet or quote tweet (that is, share the tweet and add their own message to it) people who have criticised them. Emily Reynolds, a 24-year-old freelance writer and author, has experienced this twice.

In 2014, Reynolds tweeted criticism of Ricky Gervais for his stance on the iCloud hack of celebrity nudes. Although she didn’t directly tag Gervais in the tweet by @ing him, the comedian shared her tweet after it gained traction. Because of his retweet, Reynolds began to receive hateful messages and death threats from his fans.

“It was genuinely awful,” she says. “Someone sent me a Facebook message with my address and the manner they were going to kill me with in it. I had to call the police, who eventually failed to investigate it, even though I had his name and workplace, because it had happened ‘online’. The whole experience was awful.”

Recently, it happened again. Last month, Reynolds shared her opinion of Gervais’ latest movie and although she didn’t @ the star, or even mention him by name, he retweeted her message to his 11.4 million followers. Fortunately, after she tweeted him to say she had previously received death threats, Gervais quickly undid the retweet, although he didn’t apologise.

“I figured he was too busy to name search so I didn’t think he’d see it,” says Reynolds. “Also, he didn’t even search ‘Ricky Gervais’, my tweet mentioned ‘David Brent’, who is literally his fictional character.

“What I said wasn’t abusive or cruel, I didn’t directly share my tweet with him, I just said that I didn’t like a song he’d written. If you work in a creative industry I think you should probably be more thick-skinned than that.”

And thick skin is the crux of the issue. Although it is terrible that Gervais and Rowling receive an abundance of hateful tweets, it is something that unfortunately comes with being a celebrity. When they expose average people to their fans, they open them up to a world of fame and hate that they may not be prepared for.

Thankfully, Sweeney admits that she “wasn’t really bothered” by the tweets she received, though does believe that Rowling retweets people “simply so that her army of Twitter followers will come after them and give them hate”. That seems like unlikely behaviour from a woman who fell off the Forbes billionaires list due to the sheer amount of her charitable donations, but it does leave you wondering what celebrities hope to achieve by exposing hateful tweeters. You could argue they simply want the right to argue back, but quote-tweeting someone’s message is an active decision to showcase what they said to your followers, as if you merely send a direct reply it doesn’t show up on your followers’ timelines.

Perhaps celebrities quote-tweet and retweet to reveal the truth about celebrity life. Due to her own large number of followers, Reynolds herself feels it would be irresponsible to retweet criticism, but she does have her own rules.

“I feel like it’s different if someone @s you directly, and I feel like it’s different when I receive actively misogynistic hate speech or threats, because I think it’s important that those accounts are deleted and people are aware of how it is to be a woman day to day online.”

Despite the reasoning behind the retweets, however, it doesn’t seem unfair to argue that celebrities should be more careful, especially when they don’t know who the tweeter they’re exposing really is. In 2015, an 11-year-old girl had her picture shared online and received hundreds of hateful tweets after YouTuber Gabriella Lindley called her out for posting “Moo” under her Instagram pictures. According to the girl’s sister, the incident left her “hysterical”.

Ultimately, both Reynolds and Sweeney do believe celebrities should be more responsible. “You can’t be responsible for what other people say on Twitter, and obviously I don’t think Ricky Gervais actually condones the kind of vile and abusive language towards women some of his fans deployed,” says Reynolds. “But you absolutely have to be aware of the power you have when you use particular platforms and be really careful how you wield that power.”

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