If you’ve been on TikTok at some point over the past week, you may have come across this almost ridiculous-sounding piece of information, involving Doja Cat (26) beefing with ‘Stranger Things’ star Noah Schnapp (17) for revealing a private conversation they had via Instagram DMs.
A screenshot of their exchange went viral after it was shared by Schnapp in a deleted TikTok, following which Doja Cat went on live on TikTok to label the teenager’s actions as “exploitative” and “socially unaware”.
While there has been heated online discourse about whether a 26-year-old woman should even be sending private messages to a teenager at all, the conversation has also shed light on public figures, particularly social media personalities, and the nature of their interactions online.
In the recent past, we were all made familiar with the term ‘doxing,’ which is essentially revealing and publicising the previously private records of an individual. Thanks to Twitter, doxing has become somewhat of a mainstream tool in the culture wars, used largely to ‘cancel’ people and to ‘expose’ them.
While originally doxing was used for forms of online vigilantism, having emerged from subculture websites like 4chan and Reddit, it has now become something of a mainstream phenomenon. Doxing as a tool of hunting down extremists and other deplorables has resulted in some unintended consequences and collateral damage. However, while it may seem less alarming when considering the term purely as and when applied to ‘exposing’ influencers, it’s a very different experience for the influencers being subjected to doxing.
Revealing private conversations
When you are a public figure you almost always run the risk of being misquoted, misunderstood, or wrongly perceived. In the Noah and Doja Cat debacle, Doja was concerned about having her private conversations being revealed to the public, when in fact the DM or the Direct Message implies that it is a conversation that is private and between two people.
However, as is the nature of most online interactions, they are very rarely completely private. Unless the information is particularly harmful, public personalities have their dirty laundry aired for the world to see, with people using this as an opportunity to build their entire perception of these figures based on that one piece of likely negative information.
Thanuja Jayawardena, also known as Lola on TikTok – a popular creator on the platform – shared that she had adopted the mindset that everything that was said online, even via DMs, ran the risk of being widely shared and misinterpreted. She noted that as a person with an online following, she often interacted with numerous unknown people who reached out to her for a variety of reasons. If she was to be totally authentic and candid with all of them, then it was inevitable that some would misinterpret her and put her on blast.
Lola noted that she thankfully had not yet experienced an online interaction turning sour to the point that screenshots were widely shared, however, she did understand the potential risks of that happening. “Usually, considering the nature of my content, I get contacted for skin care advice and also for moral support with regard to body positivity, etc., so when this happens I am cautious in my responses. I do not make direct recommendations and instead attempt to maintain neutrality, while always maintaining that a professional should be their go-to and that all I am able to share are my own personal lived experiences,” she said.
She noted that while the majority of her online interactions had been decent, she had faced experiences where people messaged purely to provoke a response. “I can tell that they are there to put the entire blame on me. They are not ready to listen to reason, so in such instances I try to navigate out of those conversations as quickly as possible,” she said.
Responsibility within a limit
Brunch also spoke to TV personality and online content creator Saasha Karunarathne, who shared that as someone with a public platform and as a general practice in life, she filtered herself before expressing any type of opinion out loud. “Whether it is a random person online or a corporate entity, I always speak with caution, and as a practice, I have pre-conditioned myself to exercise caution when speaking,” she said.
Saasha shared that it could be challenging when interacting with younger people in particular, because some were very impressionable and willing to take one’s word as law, and on such occasions, you had a responsibility to speak carefully.
“There was an incident where a young girl, maybe 16 or 17 years old, messaged me about a personal matter, saying that she had run away from home because she was facing domestic abuse and was in need of a place to stay. I was put in a difficult position, because while I wanted to help, I didn’t know how much harm or good my intervention could cause, as I definitely didn’t have the full picture.
“Therefore, in that specific instance I suggested that she contact professional support, offering to help her go to the Police station and file a complaint, after which she stopped messaging me. I don’t know for sure if it was legitimate or a hoax, but that was a particularly difficult situation to navigate,” Saasha revealed.
Saasha and Lola both noted however that they did not and could not ignore their audience based on the fear of potentially being misinterpreted or having an unfortunate one-off encounter with a hater.
Brunch also spoke to an influencer who recently experienced an incident where her private messages were screenshot and circulated around messaging platforms, attempting to paint her as a negative or cruel person, when the screenshots were in fact taken entirely out of context. She noted that this experience had scarred her to the point that she did not wish to continue being online because of her fear of being hated by strangers.
Privacy, doxing and legality
Media and Broadcasting Law and Intellectual Property Law expert, Senior Legal Counsel, and Attorney-at-Law Chanakya Jayadeva shared that there were three main elements to be considered when it came to the legality of practices such as doxing.
Firstly, it relates to breach of privacy. While there are no dedicated laws in Sri Lanka, there are instances where such breaches have been recognised. Jayadeva noted that the Personal Data Protection Act provided for certain areas of privacy, as did the Right to Information Act in an extensive list of exceptions, while there was also common law practice where privacy had been recognised.
Secondly, he noted that in the case of sharing private information, and in this instance in the case of publicising a screenshot, it would depend on the subject matter or the content being shared. If it is particularly harmful to the reputation of the person, then there may be a consideration of defamation, while the final element would be a case of copyright infringement if the content is creative in nature and is shared without the permission of the creator.
The incident with Doja Cat and Noah Schnapp does raise questions about when it is appropriate to share conversations, which is quite a subjective matter given what one person views as appropriate versus what another person considers appropriate.
However, in an increasingly digital world, how careful does one need to be when having conversations? We’ve all heard of celebrities being cancelled after tweets or posts they made five or 10 years ago come back to haunt them, but do we now need to worry and be cautious of interactions with everyone, even on a private level, based on the possibility that these interactions could be shared or used against us in the future?