Cybersmile spotlights trials and online tribulations
The Cybersmile Foundation, the nonprofit organisation committed to tackling online bullying, has released a new campaign that references the Salem witch trials. Here, JOAN London's Tom Ghiden and Kirsty Hathaway, the agency's MD and ECD respectively, talk cancel culture, mob tactics and history repeating.
How quickly did the Salem trials come into the conversation as a good creative avenue to explore?
TG: The idea originally came from conversations we had internally. These days, a week seldom goes by during which a celebrity isn’t cancelled or called out for doing or saying something that some people perceive as unacceptable. And, a lot of the time, the fact that unacceptable behaviour is called out is right. Social media has given everybody a voice, rather than depending on the few who had the broadcast ability, as it once was, which is great.
The consistent truth [is] that often there’s no opportunity presented for productive discussion, before the mob attacks on social media.
Important movements like #MeToo would never have happened without the democratisation of voice that we now have, after all.
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Above: JOAN London's new campaign for The Cybersmile Foundation.
KH: Obviously, these moments trigger conversations both online and in person. As an internal team, we discussed at length different instances of people being cancelled. Did they deserve it? Did they not? But the consistent truth was that often there’s no opportunity presented for productive discussion, before the mob attacks on social media — and often there’s no chance for an apology or dialogue, and the takedown becomes entertainment.
TG: As we watched this behaviour unfold, our creative team made an interesting link to the Salem witch trials. A time in history that, we will all agree, is fundamentally wrong. People were prosecuted and unable to defend themselves. The similarities to what can happen in cancel culture are too hard to ignore. The comparison was one that we knew we had to share with the world.
Does it seem scary that this approach to 'justice' is still apparent more than 300 years after the Salem witch trials?
TG: The idiom 'history repeating itself' comes to mind. Like our ancestors in Salem, people online go straight to conviction without allowing the targets an opportunity for personal reflection, conversation or growth before swinging the proverbial social media axe. The social media 'jury' typically feels empowered by their self-determined righteousness. Research from the University of Michigan shows that, given self-assurance and the anonymity the online world provides, people feel more justified to harass victims than they normally would, and they are not reflecting on the impact their words can have.
Above: The Salem witch trials, which happened in Massachusetts between February 1692 and May 1693 are the basis of the new Cybersmile campaign.
With online bullying so insidious, did it ever feel like an impossible task to flag the harm such activities cause?
TG: Absolutely! Particularly because we realise how complicated and nuanced this topic is. We’ve seen movements start in the online space, like #TimesUp, which used this mob mentality to drive action and to give a voice to victims who’d been silenced for too long.
The social media 'jury' typically feels empowered by their self-determined righteousness.
The Black Lives Matter movement was able to rally, communicate and build community with social media, particularly when Covid-19 kept the world isolated. So, the mob can lead to positive change. However, when it moves into online bullying - even in the name of social change - it can take a problematic tone.
KH: Beyond that, we also understood that by pointing out the problem, we might become a target. We had immersed ourselves, through reading thought pieces, research and many conversations with Scott [Freeman, CEO at The Cybersmile Foundation] and the rest of the Cybersmile team, about how we effectively communicate our message while trying to avoid offending. Cybersmile have been amazing partners and taught us so much about the data behind cyberbullying and the impacts of online mob culture. We all knew that it was an important message that we wanted to bring to the world.
Above: Stills from the new campaign, Modern Witch Trial.
Why was Eliza McNitt the right director for this project, and what did she bring to it?
TG: At JOAN, we already had a great relationship and huge admiration for the production company Chromista, especially impressed by the calibre of craft they bring to the work. So, when we initially were starting to think about how the idea of “mob culture isn’t new, it just got a tech upgrade”, and how to bring it to life, Chromista and Eliza McNitt were immediately at the top of our list as creative partners.
We wanted to play into cinematic storytelling to tell something... that didn't feel like it was talking at you, but took you on a journey and created that 'penny drop' moment.
KH: It was important that this didn't feel like a typical spot with dictatorial or scare-mongering messages. We wanted to play into cinematic storytelling to tell something visually captivating. Something that didn't feel like it was talking at you, but took you on a journey and created that 'penny drop' moment.
Eliza is a director who’s already done so much creative exploration in the space of emerging tech, including the Emmy-nominated VR experience, SPHERES. She was an excellent creative partner in determining how to bring to life the emotional impact social media has in our modern day. And, furthermore, she was incredibly collaborative throughout the process: working with JOAN and Cybersmile to make this emotional comparison to the past with nuance and cinematic excellence.
Above: JOAN London's MD, Tom Ghiden, and ECD, Kirsty Hathaway.
What was the most challenging part of this brief?
TG: For us, the most challenging part was understanding this nuanced topic. With the rise of cancel culture, and the increasingly socially aware becoming more outspoken, we understood that commenting in this space is increasingly complex.
The most challenging part was understanding this nuanced topic.
KH: Our team immersed itself in everything we could get our hands on; we read books, like Jon Ronson’s You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, we listened to podcasts and read research from leading universities around the world. We discussed every angle, and boy did we discuss! We wanted to ensure that, as we try to bring this story to life, we truly examined it from different perspectives.
And the most rewarding?
TG: We’re keen to make work that truly has an effect on the world and changes the way people look at the world. Partnering with The Cybersmile Foundation to bring this campaign to life, and do our part to contribute to their mission, was a hugely proud moment for us.
KH: We really believe that if we don't try and do something to address problematic behaviour now and work with people like Scott at Cybersmile we will continue to see the devastating impact play out in society. However, to do so with partners who elevated the idea and craft to an extraordinary level like Eliza, The Mill, The Quarry and Sonic Union made this brief really exceptional.
What do you hope this campaign achieves?
TG: Cybersmile’s mission is to ensure everybody has the right to access and enjoy our connected world. For us, we hope this campaign helps to stop one person from contributing vicious or unkind words to a growing mob. Or, if it gets some people to reflect on their online behaviour in a way to contribute more productively online, we’ll feel we’ve done well.