Lucy Bloom discovers that cancel culture is sometimes just a cool word for cyberbullying and the outcomes can be surprisingly positive or devastatingly final, depending on your mental health.
I have always loved Barbra Streisand. Not just for her voice but for the Streisand Effect, a social phenomenon which occurs when an attempt to bury or censor something has the unintended consequence of further publicising it. In 2003 Barbra sued a photographer to have images of her home removed from a website. The publicity brought 420,000 new visitors to the site. Before that, the image of Barbra’s house had only been downloaded by six users. Try to bury something and it will bloom.
Barbra has stepped into my life a few times when someone has tried to silence me. She swoops in with her publicity wand and kapow! You can’t buy that kind of reach.
I published a novel in March 2023, The Manuscript: A story of revenge. It’s about a woman who is writing a novel and as people in her life treat her badly, she writes them into the story and kills them off with delight. It’s a sexy post-divorce coming-of-age story, which explores the delicate nature of new relationships, the ruthlessness of karma, and the blurry line between truth and fiction.
Journalist Hamish McDonald launched The Manuscript by Lucy Bloom in Sydney. Image by Melinda Hird.
In the days after launch, an amateur Instagram reviewer posted a long detailed review, but I found some of it oddly personal and contradictory. We had chatted at my launch and she tagged me in her post so I tapped out a brief reply, pointing out her contradictions. Then we had a brief exchange that didn’t go well at all. She replied that I had invalidated her and later would publish a long series of instagram stories that stated that I had ‘destroyed her safe space’. This was not my intention at all and if I could go back in time I wouldn’t comment on that review.
Who knew engaging with a reviewer was a major no-no? Not me. My publicist hadn’t said a word. James Fell lampoons his bad reviewers all day long. Sally Hepworth used to video herself reading her one star reviews and laugh her head off – she tells me she doesn’t do that anymore.
The reviewer and her girl-gang were infuriated. Within days there were death threats in my inbox, public comments telling me to ‘eat shit and die’ and baby-faced 17-year-olds from Idaho telling me my writing career was OVER. Over, I tell ya!
Cancel culture is supposed to be a way to use collective action to speak truth to power but it seems to have taken a spin down idiot street where social media is the platform for misinformed mob rule. All aboard the hate train. Toot toot! Nothing else to do when you’re angry and lacking purpose?
I looked for the funny side. Someone wrote that The Manuscript – a book which they confirmed they’d not actually read – was only good for toilet paper. On the recommendation of investigative journalist Ginger Gorman, author of Troll Hunting, I screenshot that review and posted it to confirm that I do not recommend my books for butthole hygiene. That made me cackle but it made toxic flames shoot from the haters’ ears and stoked their furnace of hate for a long road ahead. Things moved very quickly out of control after that.
I was accused of creating multiple fake accounts to bully and harass the original reviewer. That simply did not happen. Someone made a long, boring video about all the reasons why one fake account ‘is definitely Lucy Bloom’ and another on all the reasons why I am a terrible person. It’s easy to create hatred online if you’re vindictive enough and have time to burn.
My new followers booked out the free tickets to my launch events so that real people couldn’t attend. Someone named Tegan emailed the libraries on my national book tour stating that I am a ‘danger to women and children’ and implored the libraries to cancel. One venue was unsure how to guarantee my safety with this much vitriol aimed at the venue. The entire Queensland leg of my national book tour was cancelled.
A troll tried really hard to add a couple of thousand words to my Wikipedia page but the editors of that platform axed it all as unsubstantiated bollocks.
All this happened because I commented on a book review. The slap back was so utterly disproportionate. It was as though the haters would not stop until, what? I was dead? An apology to the original reviewer was not enough. Two even. Just continuing to breathe and sell books was infuriating these haters and three months on and they were still writing abusive reviews and sending me hate mail.
I was reassured repeatedly that it would all blow over when the haters move onto their next victim. They would be laying in wait for the next author to make this error and they’d pounce. But that is not acceptable to me. Their next victim may not be as robust and may not survive. Cancel culture shouldn’t be tolerated when the mob chooses their victims with such pointless spite.
We should all be concerned for those who are vulnerable when a mob like this coordinates its efforts and crashes through with sustained hatred. Never forget Australian teenager Dolly Everett and New Zealand TV personality Charlotte Dawson. Both died by suicide after cyberbullying was relentlessly piled on top of depression.
Turns out the book-hate-brigade’s next victim was US-based first time novelist and TV producer Sarah Stusek. Her autofiction title Three Rivers copped 600+ one star reviews within 24 hours after she published some choice words about a review. She didn’t get the memo either and apologies didn’t cut it. Sarah’s book wasn’t due for release for another five months but she was dropped by her publisher. You should go buy her book which was eventually published in September 2023.
Cyberbullying moves to the real world when platforms like Goodreads fail to counteract hate bombing and all but support doxxing to flourish.
The US Capitol attack on 6 January 2021 is a perfect example of doxxing or inciting hatred online into action. There are countless other examples of social media causing huge personal damage. In Mexico an innocent man was burned alive in 2019 by a mob that believed a rumour in a WhatsApp group. In 2020, viral misinformation about child trafficking, spread through Facebook and WhatsApp, led to the lynching deaths of some 20 innocent people in India, WhatApp’s largest market.
A 2019 inquiry reported that cyberbullying is the most common cause of suicide in children aged between 13 and 17. As many as 10 suicides per week in Australia across all age groups are attributed to online abuse or cyberbullying. What the hell?
Goodreads, Facebook, Tiktok and Instagram hosted the worst of the cyberbullying directed at me personally. Goodreads, an Amazon-owned but user-run platform for books, has been home to the sustained abuse of authors and has nurtured hate-bombing for as long as it has been live. Only Tiktok has an enforceable policy which removes content reported as doxxing but only under very specific terms.
Cyber abuse is now a crime in Australia with the Online Safety Act 2021. The eSafety Commission offers reporting and investigation mechanisms. However, in my case, most of the 65,000 accounts that slammed into my Instagram profile in April alone were burner accounts created specifically for the purposes of online hatred and mischief. My reports to the Commission were handled with great compassion and care but the remaining content online didn’t quite meet the definition covered by the Act. Not quite horrid enough.
Cancel culture by way of hate bombing on review sites is designed to create real commercial damage. All my books have copped piles of abuse on Goodreads, all left by folks who have never read these books and were never going to. Luckily for me, I receive 95% of my book revenue outside traditional book sales channels.
IMDb has conquered the issue of hate bombing and cancel culture on the global film review platform with an adjustment to their data interpretation so that unusual activity such as hate bombing or doxxing doesn’t contribute to the overall score for a film. The Little Mermaid attracted this kind of activity with 22,000 one star ratings before it was even released because the KKK and their righty-tighty mates didn’t like the idea of a black mermaid.
Source: Sandra Camacho
My story ends well enough, though it is still in train. The hatred spews forth sporadically, like a bad case of herpes, as newbies to one side of the story spew their misinformed nastiness at me for no purpose whatsoever.
Barbra Streisand, however, keeps waving her publicity wand and sales of The Manuscript have gone well. The book’s first print run sold out in 11 days and I am seeing an unexpected surge in Amazon sales from Idaho. My memoir Get the Girls Out is now on a turbo-charged piggy-back sales rocket. There is interest in film adaptations of both books.
This could be because I wrote a really good novel. Or it could be because cancel culture chose me. Maybe both. Try to bury something and it will bloom. I can tell you this much, the online haters of 2023 have given me an enormous file of ideas for the sequel to The Manuscript. I can also tell you that I will never comment on a book review again, as long as I live.
Further reading: New York Times 26 June 2023 “How Review-Bombing Can Tank a Book Before It’s Published” by By Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth Harris.
Updated 27 October 2023 to include a link to Sarah Stusek’s book, Three Rivers.