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What The Circle has taught us about online safety and online mainstream acceptance

ByAmy Houghton

Oct 14, 2019

A lesbian pretending to be straight, a 40-something woman disguised as her son, a model passing herself off as a less intimidating girl-next door and a black girl masked behind the image of a middle-class young white man. Reality TV programme The Circle is back on our screens and yet again confronts its viewers with the real risks of social media as well as the disparities, however subtle or extreme, that exist between ourselves and our digital alter-egos.

One of the most alarming aspects of the show is the way in which players pick and choose their traits based on what they anticipate will gain them the most popularity. What does it say about society when people feel the necessity to alter their race, sexuality, age or gender in order to claim social hierarchy? Questions are also raised about how stereotypes are created and enforced through online platforms. Catfish Busayo, who wants to “shed light on white privilege in social interaction”, notes that her character Josh’s passion for grime music is a quirky characteristic for a white guy, but were she playing herself, it would be passed off as typical black taste. Or take Richard Madeley’s character, a conventionally beautiful 27-year old woman, who quickly had to explain how she knew who Cressida Dick was so as to avoid suspicion. Because who could believe that an attractive woman has any knowledge of current affairs?

We are told that this is a world in which ‘anybody can be anybody’, but this slogan can be applied beyond the confines of the pristinely furnished flats that the contestants are imprisoned in. The disturbing ease at which contestants are able to lie to and manipulate their opponents is made all the more unnerving by the fact that it all too closely echoes the real life use of social media. The difference in the real world however, is that it is not a game. We don’t treat online profiles with immediate suspicion because they too are pursuing a £100,000 prize, and more often than not we like to believe what we see despite being aware of how easily these platforms can be exploited.

Emma Willis, this year’s host of the show, admitted that she was reluctant to take on the role saying “it’s essentially catfishing and should we be celebrating that?”. She has since come to the conclusion that it is “a glowing beacon of what we should all be aware of on social media: trust nobody”. Ultimately the only fictional thing about the show are the various fake profiles the contestants create. That is not to say though that it is wholly negative. There are moments of real, authentic feeling and empathy among the players and The Circle becomes a place where people such as Crohns survivor Georgina or Paddy who has cerebral palsy can empower themselves and be unapologetic about their differences. Similarly, social media can offer a platform for community and has facilitated the growth of a more accepting and inclusive society. Particularly in the era of body positivity, influencers are increasingly using Instagram to highlight the moments where they do not uphold their perfect online image. The Circle emphasises social media’s dual potential and, whilst we must undoubtedly approach everything and everyone we are exposed to online with caution, there is room for optimism in an era of growing acceptance.


Image: Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

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