David Baddiel: Social Media, Anger and Us (BBC Two) kicks off with a shocker, broadcasting CCTV footage of the moment the Smithy family, who have 2.5 million followers on TikTok, had their car firebombed on their drive. The family blame trolls for the attack, having received online criticism and threats. “It’s our life, and we put it out there for people to see,” says the ex-builder turned social media star Nick, who explains that he feels he has put his family in danger.
This is a thoughtful and mature documentary that considers whether online rage has real-world consequences. Baddiel has experienced antisemitic abuse on Twitter, where he has 785,000 followers. He has had brushes with what is called “cancel culture” and “callout culture”, when users have criticised his use of blackface on TV in the 1990s, for which he has apologised. He is also a self-confessed social media addict – by which he really means Twitter, his primary focus here – and self-aware enough to admit that while he feels he needs it to promote his work, he also understands that he has a psychological need for an audience, and by extension, for audience approval.
Partly, this is a litany of how bad for us social media can be. Evidence suggests that hateful speech on Twitter leads to an increase in incidences of hate crimes on the streets. Jaron Lanier, who wrote the book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, argues that social media brings out the worst in people, increasing paranoia and irritability. Baddiel has his brain scanned while he is shown supportive and critical tweets (a more dour BBC version of the US chatshow slot Celebrities Read Mean Tweets). Unsurprisingly, the nice posts get the dopamine-based reward network all fired up; intriguingly, the negative ones compel his body to physical action. The theory is that it’s triggering a fight or flight response.
There are careful examples given of what can go wrong, how reputations can be trashed and even national identities altered. Online identity is a ripe subject, and one that feels as if it could have its own series. In one particularly moving segment, Baddiel speaks to his daughter, Dolly, about her experiences with anorexia as a teenager, and how crude notions of identity, something social media if not encourages then allows to flourish, might affect malleable adolescent brains. It is profound and honest.
It is also complicated, and a great irony is that Twitter can reduce any argument to a screaming match about the most basic elements of that discussion. Baddiel dips a tentative toe into cancel culture, speaking to the comedian Phil Wang about abuse Wang received online after he made a joke about Jeremy Corbyn on Have I Got News for You. More enlightening is the conversation with comedian Athena Kugblenu, who takes a different tack in a chat about the England cricketer Ollie Robinson, who apologised for racist and sexist tweets posted when he was 18. Kugblenu argues that racism should not be treated as a rite of passage. It is the kind of balanced conversation you don’t see much of on, well, you know where.
Eventually, Baddiel agrees to give up Twitter for two weeks, to see if it makes him feel better. He hands over his phone, has the passwords changed, and explains that somebody else will be managing his account for the duration of his absence. While the historical, societal and cultural contexts around social media are fascinating and explained with some insight, it is worth pointing out that this is about the experiences of people on social media who have considerable followings, who are able to get someone else to “manage” their account while they’re away. I’m not sure the “Us” in the title is reflective of the British public as a whole.
That doesn’t make this film less interesting, only less universal. It is estimated that about 24% of Britons use Twitter, though you would imagine that figure to be far higher, given how dominant it has become. It is not the real world – not yet, at least. But just as I begin to feel bleak about all these bright people being made to feel miserable and anxious by a platform from which they cannot extricate themselves, Baddiel finishes the film with a beautiful touch. He posts about his father, who is ill with dementia. People rally round, send messages of support, show the empathy we worry will be lost. The nice side of social media is still there, if you look for it. But is it enough?