It is a refrain we have heard ad nauseum for the better part of a decade: that social media is not real life. Even as these platforms have become increasingly inescapable, we have been repeatedly told that the things we see online – the things we do or say, the way we present – are happening in some alternate reality, one that is, crucially, separate from our physical one.

While perhaps this framing can be useful for those trying to avoid compulsively comparing their lives to others, or in warnings about social media as a “highlight reel” rather than an accurate representation of all life, does this idea actually ring true? And what is the real harm when we act like our digital actions don’t have consequences?

The answer could be found this week in the sentencing of the ex-BBC DJ Alex Belfield, a former radio host turned popular YouTuber who has been jailed for five and a half years after being found guilty of stalking four people, including the broadcaster Jeremy Vine.

However, unlike many classic stalking cases, Belfield’s behaviour was conducted almost entirely online. Through his YouTube channel, The Voice of Reason, which has 350,000 subscribers and was estimated to be making Belfield more than half a million pounds a year, he made countless videos targeting and harassing his victims, posted messages on social media about them and bombarded them with emails, and encouraged his followers to do the same.

Jeremy Vine leaves the Royal Courts of Justice in London after a hearing in his High Court defamation fight with a former local radio presenter who operates a YouTube channel. Picture date: Tuesday October 5, 2021. PA Photo. Mr Vine claims that Alex Belfield defamed and harassed him on YouTube and Twitter between May and August 2020. See PA story COURTS Vine . Photo credit should read: Ian West/PA Wire
Jeremy Vine was one of the four stalking victims of Belfield (Photo: Ian West/PA)

This online behaviour was very much harmful in the “real world”: the sentencing judge said his digital methods were “just as effective” at intimidating his victims (as more traditional methods) and “were in many ways much harder to deal with”. After the conviction, Vine told Newsnight that if Belfield hadn’t been found guilty then he believed “someone would have died.” He spoke of his very real fear for his daughters whenever they left the house – that they may be attacked with a knife or with acid – as Belfield had shared Vine’s home address with his followers.

Belfield’s conviction follows a number of high-profile cyber stalking cases this year, the most prominent of which saw the jailing of a man who had stalked at least 62 women over the course of more than a decade; in January, he was sentenced to nine years in prison (an anti-stalking charity representative described it as “the longest sentence we’ve ever heard of”).

While Belfield may not have targeted such a large number of people, his case is noteworthy in how brazen he was about his behaviour. Rather than trying to hide what he was doing – stalking his victims covertly – Belfield boasted about his actions on YouTube and used harassment as a way to become a minor celebrity. In this way, we should see his case as a symptom of a broader societal desensitisation to digital harassment, and how stalking – as long as it is done online – is minimised, normalised, and tolerated.

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Why Belfield was able to operate so long – and in many ways stalk his victims at all – was thanks in part to the apparently lax attitudes of many of the big social media companies when it comes to the cyber stalking and harassment happening on their platforms.

Speaking to the Sunday Times following Belfield’s sentencing, Vine emphasised how difficult it was to get YouTube to take action on Belfield’s account, saying lawyers had to get involved to see any real movement. “Even then it’s hard,” Vine said. “The companies just say no.” Though YouTube says it demonetised Belfield’s account in February, meaning he could make no money from advertising on any of his videos, and took down some of his offending content, many of his videos targeting his victims (Vine in particular) are still live.

Belfield also encouraged his followers to make copies of his videos before his sentencing, so that they could be reposted on fan accounts even if they get taken down.

YouTube is not alone: Twitter has also come under fire. When Belfield first began to harass Vine on the platform, Vine was told by the BBC to “block and ignore” – a strategy that, while understandable and good advice in one-off instances, fails to apply to stalking by someone as obsessive as Belfield. When Belfield was blocked, he would make new accounts in order to continue (Vine estimated he received up to 10,000 messages from Belfield alone). And despite now being in prison, Belfield’s Twitter account remains live on the platform.

To add insult to injury, Belfield also used both his Twitter and YouTube accounts to report on his own ongoing stalking trial, commenting on victim testimonies and using his YouTube videos to promote merchandise and live tour tickets being sold via his personal website (which are also, at the time of writing, still available to view online).

However, while social media platforms play a significant role on an operational level when it comes to how easily and widely harassment can occur – and aggressive legislation should be passed to force platforms to better moderate themselves – there is also a chilling human element in all of this. We are growing to accept the idea that cyber stalking can’t have, and does not have, the same damaging effects as stalking offline.

File photo dated 03/01/18 of social media apps, including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and WhatsApp, displayed on a mobile phone screen. Facebook has confirmed it is working to fix an issue with its main feed after many users reported seeing waves of posts unrelated to their interests. Issue date: Wednesday August 24, 2022. PA Photo. On Wednesday morning, Facebook users around the world began reporting what some deemed "spam" messages appearing on their feeds, often posts from random users being directed at celebrities or famous accounts on the platform. See PA story TECHNOLOGY Facebook. Photo credit should read: Yui Mok/PA Wire
Our increasing use of social media alongside our increasing belief that it exists outside our physical lives is creating a fatal detachment (Photo: PA Wire Yui Mok)

Throughout his trial, and even despite his conviction, Belfield’s fandom remained supportive, steadfast in the belief that Belfield never harassed anyone at all. Just days before his sentencing, he was able to garner a large audience when he appeared at an event in Birmingham alongside Katie Hopkins called “Two Gobshites Live”, which was described in advertising as “the perfect night out if you want to laugh at the insanity of our lefty world…”. While the ability to undertake such a show at that time of course points to Belfield’s own emotional detachment from his actions, it is also revealing of his fandom who show ambivalence.

This acceptance of harassment – and inability to see it as harassment – isn’t just happening to prominent public figures. On a granular level, regular people are experiencing online harassment at concerning rates, as seen through things such as the rise of burner accounts to send anonymous, threatening messages, which has become an all too familiar part of many people’s online experiences.

Online harassment in these cases doesn’t even always require anonymity, with some people experiencing online pile-ons, frequently as a result of “receipts culture”, with the harasser operating publicly, claiming that what they are doing is ultimately harmless or that it’s their right to say whatever they want online; completely detaching from the emotional impact their actions will inevitably wrought or how their obsessive behaviour would be seen if it was happening in “real life”.

While it seems likely that most people would look at Belfield’s behaviour and see it as repellant, his case, his following, and his rise to fame are all a symptom of something happening to our society that is much bigger than one stalker or one toxic following.

Our increasing use of social media alongside the belief that it exists outside our physical lives is creating a fatal detachment from each other as human beings to whom we can cause extensive harm. Unless we learn to see the real life effects of our digital actions, that gap will only widen – making the already dangerous consequences an unavoidably normal feature of our reality.

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