When Kenneth Tong, a former UK Big Brother star, launched a pro-anorexia campaign on Twitter, he claims it was to prove a point; however, a closer look at the controversy reveals what Tong actually proved is that: when it comes to social media reporting, news outlets, like Tong himself, often miss the point entirely.
In early January 2011, the 25 year old Tweeted a number of messages that encouraged followers to develop and maintain eating disorders. Examples include: “Don’t let the fat masses oppress you from your goals. You deserve a skinny body” and “To be thinner, skip dinner. Anorexia is not evil, it is an oft mismanaged blessing.” After being bashed by the likes of Rihanna, Rochelle Williams, and thousands of other Twitter users, Tong revealed that the campaign was a hoax. He was acting on a dare to prove that he could become a trending topic in a short amount of time, Tong claims that:
“I think it is time for to come clean. The whole size zero thing is a hoax. It came about after an interesting discussion I had with a friend of mine. The discussion centered round whether it was possible, to go from nowhere to be a globally recognized figure within a week harnessing the power of the internet and specifically Twitter, which I have always maintained is a better medium than national TV….To prove him wrong, I decided as a hoax to promote via Twitter something that was universally appalling, I chose managed anorexia.”
Most reporting outlets focussed either on the backlash Tong received from the stunt or the feedback the offensive Tweets earned. There are definitely points to be made in both areas of focus. Perhaps, most pertinently, social media is progressively demolishing the adage “all publicity is good publicity”. Tong’s stunt has caused him to go to France to evade death threats, and he claims even his closest friends turned on him during the week. While he was never an A-list star, it’s unlikely Tong’s image will rebound from this controversy.
However, what is far more offensive than Tong’s actual Tweets is that he was right. By making controversial statements on a sensitive topic, he easily garnered the attention he sought. What’s worse? The media seem to be overlooking his success; after all, they were a part of it.
Tong’s behaviour actually did make a point: media outlets are still unsure how to “report on” social media.Â From celebrity death hoaxes to online campaigns, the media writes about Twitter “trends” as though they are, in and of themselves, evidence. The question that needs to be asked is: evidence of what? And, whose evidence is it? Within specific contexts, trending topics can be informative. However, when taken out of context, news outlets end up reporting rumour as though it was fact. While it is easy to attack Tong, it is, perhaps, also useful to consider what role news outlets play in online hoaxes, and how, as social media grows, the relationship between news and social media is going to, and should, be navigated.