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Caroline Flack’s death shows how social media has democratised cruelty

The days after the death of Caroline Flack have seen an admirably sober, reflective mood on the part of politicians and the public. Labour leadership candidates are denouncing press intrusion and calling for regulation of social media, while Downing Street wants social media firms to be more proactive in removing “unacceptable content”. Journalists are contrite over allegations that the tabloids hounded Flack. After the feast, the penitence.

Amid the contrition, of course, everyone is searching for someone else to blame. Social media users blame trolls. Politicians blame social media. The press blames reality television – a format that specialises in “interpersonal torture”, as Douglas Rushkoff puts it.

But this problem can’t be reduced to a single source, and Flack’s trials in particular seem to have been orchestrated by an informal alliance between the press, social media, and police and prosecutors – who furnish the titillating details for lurid headlines and furious tweets. But there is no single villain in this coalition of moral persecution: in fact, it involves us all.
Flack was about to be prosecuted over allegations of assaulting her partner, despite him withdrawing his complaint. Most of us know next to nothing about what really happened. However, the press that had happily built her up as a star also delighted in taking her down, cackling about Caroline “Whack”. On the back of these headlines, armies of online vigilantes were equally happy to harass someone about whom they knew little, often acting as judge, jury and executioner while dispensing with the presumption of innocence. What is really happening here is that a form of punitive moralism towards celebrities, long associated with the tabloid press and the police – whose alliance was exposed by the phone-hacking scandal – has now been democratised. The issue is not unkindness or random bad behaviour, but a cultural system of public sadism.

This is obscured by the fact that such sadism usually has some virtuous justification. The former director of public prosecutions Ken Macdonald has offered the state’s rationale for prosecuting Flack after the allegations were withdrawn, rightly noting that victims often withdraw their complaints under pressure from their abusers. The tabloids, meanwhile, have their own justifications for exposing private lives. “Privacy is for paedos,” the News of the World hack Paul McMullan told the Leveson inquiry.In all his years of spying on celebrities for public titillation, he had “never found anybody doing any good”.
Online culture has its own forms of justification for vigilantism. The hashtag #believesurvivors, for example, has often been interpreted on social media to mean that every horrendous allegation is automatically true. There are good reasons for all of this: abusers exert pressure on their victims; the criminal justice system is under increasing public pressure to rectify its mishandling of such crimes; privacy can be used to shield bad behaviour; and survivors are all too often not taken seriously. Yet we have already seen examples – including the collapse of Operation Midland and related inquiries into elite child abuse – of how public shaming, online and off, can be used to destroy people’s lives, even if the charges turn out to be baseless. But the dirty secret in all these episodes is the pleasure we all take in participating.

What is at stake in the monstering of celebrities is a prurient relish in the excesses and meltdowns of cultural elites – a form of what Theodor Adorno called “malicious egalitarianism”. If you’re in the public eye, it is said, nastiness goes with the terrain. It is the quid pro quo for privilege. Many people online now argue that the consequences of such attacks usually aren’t even serious. “Just about everybody ends up fine,” the columnist Lyta Gold writes, regarding “cancel culture” with “their careers intact”. Yet this is a standard of “harm” that says it doesn’t matter what torment a person endures – if they’re not dead, or in career oblivion, then they’re basically fine.
But now it is not just the ostensibly powerful who are in our sights. The upshot of social media is that we’re all in the public eye, all celebrities. An entire industry has developed – call it the social industry – which converts social life into celebrity competition. The social media platforms, along with a network of advertisers, PR firms, multinationals, celebrities, news media and gaming corporations connected to them, have helped create a highly profitable new ecology of public visibility.

Anyone with an account has a public image – and, by deciding what to post, a public relations strategy. Anyone can become a magnet for the volatile feelings associated with what psychiatrists call “celebrity worship syndrome”, which burden the sufferer with anxiety and depression. Over time, especially as the follower is disappointed by the object of their worship, these feelings segue into a no less passionate loathing, or even a desire to destroy the celebrity.

The social industry did not invent these tendencies. Even McMullan admitted that his paper’s articles about Jennifer Elliott, daughter of the actor Denholm Elliott, may have contributed to her suicide. Richard Littlejohn’s hounding of the trans woman Lucy Meadows in the Daily Mail contributed, according to the coroner, to her suicide. However, the social industry has democratised cruelty, ramped up popular sadism and enrolled all of us into these rituals of punishment.