Every stage of the Keaton Jones saga exposed another terrible thing about the internet

The rise and fall of an 11-year-old bullied boy. 

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From the beginning, Keaton Jones was the most bullied boy on the internet. On 8 December 2017, the 11-year-old went viral for speaking out against his school bullies in a Facebook video uploaded by his mother. His story obscured all others – including that of 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis, who hanged herself after bullies posted a video of her fighting to an app – and inspired hundreds to donate tens of thousands of dollars to the Jones family. By 11 December, just three days later, Jones was being bullied by grown adults after it emerged that his mother had previously posed with a Confederate flag. A “Jeaton Kones” parody account with over 10,000 followers went viral for tweets comparing the child to Sloth from The Goonies and insinuating that he fancied his cousin.

The treatment of “both” Keatons – Keaton the hero, and Keaton the villain – was wrong. The saga, which is still making headlines six days later – has exposed almost every single flaw in the way we think, act, and speak online.

Keaton’s mother’s decision to upload a video of her child crying is emblematic of a strange culture we have created. YouTubers have made millions of pounds sharing footage of their children in extreme emotional distress, while very few parents are concerned with the consequences of uploading private pictures of their offspring to the internet. An oversaturation of emotional content on social media also encourages us to be more and more dramatic for a reaction; a 2013 study found that emotionally-charged posts spread more rapidly than neutral ones online.

Every single person who made Keaton Jones first go viral had the ability to scroll down and see his mother’s posts about the Confederate flag. They had the ability to research his family or reach out to his school to verify the story (in particular, news organisations that covered the viral video had a responsibility to investigate the story beyond the Facebook clip). The very fact that these sound like ridiculous lengths to go to before clicking Like or Share exposes the complete lack of critical thinking we have become used to online.   

“Milkshake ducking” – the phenomenon where people loved by the internet are suddenly disgraced – is emblematic of this lack of critical thinking. People aren’t milkshake ducked because they suddenly do something bad after doing something good, they are disgraced because no one thinks to question someone until after they’ve made them go viral. Only when something reaches peak popularity is it questioned, when it just as easily could’ve been scrutinised before.

The emotional contagion that propelled Keaton to internet stardom also meant people began donating to a crowdfunding page set up by a third party to raise money for the family. Even if the Jones family had not been disgraced, this was a bizarre move – with over $50,000 raised for one boy instead of a charity or campaign attempting to eradicate bullying. The decision was particularly egregious when compared to the reaction to Ashawnty Davis’ death. As culture editor Evette Dionne writes for Teen Vogue :

“The rush to provide resources to Keaton Jones and his family isn’t a bad thing. White men account for 70 percent of suicides, so ensuring that white, male children have resources is important, but so is guaranteeing that children of colour are equally supported. It’s merely a sign of who we culturally consider worthy of public support. It’s a sign that a black girl’s trauma can be easily overlooked, and no amount of media attention will change that.”

Yet if Keaton’s rise was a smörgåsbord of online failures, his downfall shed light on even more toxic elements of internet culture.  

After his mother was exposed for posing with the Confederate flag, rumours spread that Keaton was only bullied because he called children the N-word at school. Though tweets claiming this have hundreds of thousands of retweets, there is no evidence so far that this ever happened – with no one from Keaton’s school corroborating the claims. Once again, emotions spread far faster than facts, meaning many felt justified in bullying and degrading the 11-year-old online. Of course it is acceptable to withdraw support for Keaton’s family after their racist behaviour was exposed, but it is another thing entirely to mock an 11-year-old’s appearance because of his parents’ actions.

“Keaton Jones’ jailed white supremacist dad pointed AK-47 at his bullied son and beat his mum, court documents reveal.” So reads a headline on The Sun which exposes a child’s traumatic history to the world and will most likely follow him for the rest of his life. The rush to generate content from social media scandals (a crime this article itself is arguably guilty of) is another shameful element of the Keaton Jones’ saga that damningly lays bare the flaws of click-generating online journalism.

Every stage of the Keaton Jones saga exposed another terrible thing about the internet. From the emotional contagion that meant we didn’t think critically to the online disinhibition which allowed trolls to feel no guilt for mocking a child, the whole story was and is entirely shameful.

Had Keaton Jones’ story been an episode of Black Mirror, it would have been criticised for being too over the top. Our obsession with building people up and tearing them down online is toxic and could easily be avoided with a basic amount of critical thinking. Rarely is someone an absolute hero or perfect victim, and equally rarely is an 11-year-old so villainous that they deserve to be bullied by thousands of people online. 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh