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Culture Film & TV Review & Analysis

I May Destroy You and the Hazards of Online Echo Chambers

Michaela Coel’s latest drama perfectly encapsulates the dangers of social media and activist pedestals.

This piece was originally published on Vocal (12.08.20)

This article contains spoilers for I May Destroy You as well as talk of rape and sexual assault.

Every day, millions of people interact with each other across timelines and feeds, organised by algorithms that analyse your every move to calculate the perfect online sphere for you. In many ways, this sounds wonderful, and in many ways, it is.

A utopia of confirmation bias where people shower you with affirmations on your opinions and ideologies in order to please you; opinions and ideologies that may even be constructed and presented in order to please others in the first place, creating an endless echo-chamber.

Illustration by Christopher Vorlet

Of course, we can’t blame this purely on algorithmic technology (even though they do play a huge part in the matter – just look at the Cambridge Analytica scandal). We perpetuate our own echo-chamber every day – from the people we follow on Twitter, our news sources, where we live, where we work… It is the age-old US versus THEM mentality .

Egos and Echos

In Michaela Coel’s newest masterpiece I May Destroy You, we watch as the main character Arabella (played by Coel herself) falls into the pits of internet fame and activism. When she outs her colleague as her rapist at her book reading, her already notable following explodes and survivors gather around her as a torch in the dark.

BBC / I May Destroy You, Episode 5: It Just Came Up

At first, it is affirming – not only does she receive an abundance of support and encouragement, but she sees others coming forward and feeling empowered by her stance.

Then her feed and DMs start to overflow with deeply personal and heavy messages from rape and assault survivors seeking her support and council – all while she is still swimming to reach the shore of her own unresolved trauma. And like a tsunami it swallows her whole, leaving her to become one with it.

Because she has entered an echo-chamber of Yes-(wo)men, she neglects her own faults to fit her narrative. The issue and implications of social media in activist movements are tense, and the series shows that. From the good – bringing people together and empowering the disempowered – to the bad – lack of context and nuance, extremism and doxing, etc.

Read my full review of the series here.

In ‘Social Media is a Great Way to Connect’, the 9th episode in the series, we see Arabella’s search for comfort and validation significantly shift as a stranger, a fan, a fellow survivor, tweets at her the address of her abuser. Some start suggesting that they should start doxing (sharing personal information online without consent) men who have abused them.

This audience views her as a guiding light, and she is happy to be that. To use her voice, to speak for the silenced… isn’t that something we should all do if given the possibility? She becomes infested with this projected heroine persona, and although she is virtually more connected than ever – she is out of touch with the ground below her.

BBC / I May Destroy You, Paapa Essiedu and Michaela Coel.

It’s Halloween night, and Bella’s friends Terry & Kwame are starting to reach a boiling point with her relentless Instagramming and holier-than-thou-attitude. Kwame opens up about an uncomfortable hook-up he had with a girl where he had wanted to test out the fluidity of his sexuality, only to find out afterwards that the girl he had slept with was homophobic. Terry takes Kwame’s side, knowing what he is going through as he is recovering from his own assault that hasn’t been taken nearly as seriously as Bella’s.

But when Bella realises that Kwame hadn’t told the girl that he identified as gay and was experimenting, and had essentially slept with her under false pretences, she furiously accuses him of sexual exploitation, saying that he is part of the problem. Terry brings up how Bella had locked Kwame in a bedroom with a stranger without either’s consent. Challenged on her hypocrisy and use of survivor rhetoric as a shield to neglect accountability, Bella storms out of the event and starts live streaming to her followers in seek of their echo.

BBC / I May Destroy You

Frantic and fuming, she walks the streets of London with her demon wings out and horns ready to charge and take anyone in her way down. Rebuking the way the patriarchy has slithered into every aspect of our everyday lives, the illuminating screen fills with hearts as well as trolls telling her to show her tits. Distressed and dissociating, she starts to stumble.

Rest, Reflect, Rejuvenate

She ends up at her therapist’s house where she goes on to rant about Kwame; his audacity; and how she feels that she must publicly disown him. “Do you need social media?” her therapist asks. Bella immediately becomes defensive – no, she doesn’t need social media, social media needs her!

Her therapist then goes on to suggest that if she can’t quit completely – she should at least try to take a step back and re-evaluate what is important in her life and what is in her control.

BBC / I May Destroy You

It is dangerously easy to let yourself get lost in echo-chambers online. If you are in one, you won’t know until you’re not. Hindsight is 20/20, and the best we can do to avoid the slippery hazards of bias and prejudice is to rest, reflect, and rejuvenate before reckless reaction.

When Bella was finally confronted by something that wasn’t blind affirmation from people who only knew her two-dimensionally, she was faced with the devil disguised within her. This was her re-birth and her re-connection to what has happened to her and what is happening around her.

By malinevita

I talk and write about things I find interesting.

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