Clickbait, Controversy & Cancel Culture: KSI & The Dark Side Of Social Media

11 April 2023 |
Episode 12 |

Episode summary

Does social media bring out the worst in us as human beings? In this episode, I examine the social media backlash surrounding controversial comments made by UK rapper KSI, in a now deleted YouTube video. I explain how deliberately controversial posts and clickbait headlines encourage bad online behaviours that fuel social media algorithms with negativity, and the mental health impact of negative social media comments. I explore why we’re comfortable behaving more abusively online than we would in person, how intense emotions spread across social networks, and why social media is making us less empathetic towards each other. I also share some tips for making your social media experience more positive.

Episode notes

In this episode, I talk about:

  • The role of social media in the rise and fall of KSI, a popular British YouTuber, rapper, boxer, and entrepreneur
  • How influencers, brands, and media outlets make money through content creation as part of the attention economy
  • Why clickbait headlines and controversial posts drive high views and engagement on social media
  • How social media algorithms change our behaviour and amplify negative human traits to capture our attention
  • Toxic comments, cancel culture, and how they affect our mental health
  • Why we’re comfortable behaving more abusively online than we ever would in person
  • Losing our capacity for empathy and compassion because of online interactions and echo chambers that reinforce our existing views
  • How emotional states spread through social networks without the need for direct contact between users
  • Conscious use of social media for a more positive experience

Resources and tools mentioned:


Episode transcript

Expand to read a transcript of this episode

[00:00:34] Hey guys, welcome back to The Digital Diet Podcast. I hope you’re feeling well-rested after the extra long Easter weekend. It’s always nice to have a few extra days off work, and of course, now it’s also a short four day working week too. Before we get started today, I wanted to ask you for a little favour.

[00:00:58] This is Episode 12 of the podcast, which means that we’ve been going for around three months now. And if you’ve been listening for a while, then you might remember that a few episodes back, I mentioned that in all of my previous solo podcasting efforts, I’ve only ever made it to Episode 4. So we’re well and truly getting into this one now, and I’m really enjoying it. I hope that you’re enjoying it too, and if you are, then I would really appreciate it if you would do two things.

[00:01:32] First, please hit the subscribe or the follow button on whichever platform you’re listening on so that you never miss an episode. And second, please consider leaving me a rating, or a review, or both, on the platform you’re listening on. I know you can do this on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, but I’m not entirely sure about the other platforms. So if anyone knows, then feel free to drop me a line and clue me in.

[00:02:02] Like a lot of people, I always feel a bit awkward asking for things, but ratings and reviews are really important. First off, they let me know if you actually like the content that I’m putting out, so I know whether to keep going or to switch it up if it’s not helping you, because that is, after all, the whole point of this podcast.

[00:02:27] But ratings and reviews also help the algorithms on those podcasting platforms to do their thing, so that more people can discover the episodes and hopefully I can support more people to achieve a better tech-life balance. So, if you have a few minutes, please do consider leaving me a rating and/or a review, I would really appreciate it.

[00:02:50] Now, a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I’ve been busy working away on my first ever group coaching programme, which, if everything goes to plan, I’ll be able to tell you a little bit more about in the next couple of weeks. It’s all around the topic of social media, so I’ve spent a lot of time digging deeper into the social media experience that we all have, and what it means for our digital wellness.

[00:03:19] And something happened in the last week or so, which for me kind of highlights some of the best and worst parts of social media, and that’s what I want to talk about with you today. It relates to the recent controversy surrounding KSI. Now, for those of you that aren’t familiar with KSI, he’s a popular British YouTuber, rapper, and boxer. In addition to his own YouTube channel, he’s a co-founder and member of the British YouTube group known as The Sidemen, and he’s also the CEO of Misfits Boxing, the co-owner of Prime energy drink, 19 Vodka, and a restaurant chain known as Sides.

[00:04:07] So, it’s fair to say that he has a finger in quite a lot of pies. KSI has been active for a while, but until last year, I hadn’t ever heard of him. Maybe that’s an age thing, I don’t know, but he is a social media success story. And his reach has now expanded beyond social media because he’s appearing in mainstream media a lot more. There’s even a documentary on Amazon Prime about his life that’s been produced by Louis Theroux.

[00:04:39] And, as I said, I became aware of him last year when he launched the Prime energy drink, which he co-owns with another popular YouTuber called Logan Paul. The two of them have over 40 million YouTube followers combined and billions of views racked up on their videos. And so this collaboration led to a huge social media hype around the Prime energy drink product, and there was a huge demand from school age children.

[00:05:10] That surge in demand sparked absolutely chaotic scenes at Asda and Aldi, two supermarket chains that we have here in the UK. And that chaos made it onto the mainstream evening news. At Aldi, the drink had sold out within 5-10 minutes, and people were buying and selling the drink online for profit. There was, I believe, an eBay listing offering 12 bottles for £400. It was absolute madness. So, I think it would be fair to say that social media was generally pro KSI.

[00:05:47] People were celebrating his successes, supporting his various business ventures. He’s a self-made man, and the media loves a good rags to riches story. But there’s something that the internet loves more, and that’s clickbait and controversy, which is exactly what KSI has become in the last fortnight.

[00:06:09] And the reason for this is because on the Sidemen YouTube channel, the members of the Sidemen Collective – it’s a group of young men, which includes KSI – the Sidemen were parodying a long-running British game show called Countdown. If you haven’t seen it, then in one of the tasks, contestants are given a string of random letters, and they have to make the longest word that they possibly can.

[00:06:36] Now, the video has since been taken down. But in it, the Sidemen are playing Countdown, and in trying to score a point for his team, there’s a moment where KSI says that there’s only one word that he can make. He then acknowledges that it’s probably not something that is acceptable to say, but he decides to go ahead and he says it anyway.

[00:07:00] And the word that he gives is a racial slur. It’s a derogatory four-letter word for someone of Pakistani origin that has very dark historical associations. Aside from being offensive in and of itself, it’s a word that’s been used by people who are carrying out targeted and quite horrific acts of violence against members of the South Asian community, whether they were from Pakistan or not.

[00:07:28] So, understandably, hearing it can bring up a lot of emotions in people who are either on the receiving end of this themselves, or who know people in their families or in their communities that were. And to put this into perspective for you, in some cases, this word was the last word that some victims heard shouted at them before they were fatally beaten to death. So, it’s not something to be thrown around casually.

[00:07:57] The response that KSI is met with when he says this word is laughter from the other Sidemen before they just casually move on with the game. Now, obviously this is totally not okay, and like many people, I obviously condemn the use of racist language. But that’s not what I want to focus on here today. I just wanted to give you a little bit of backstory.

[00:08:24] What’s interesting here is how quickly social media turned on KSI. The same accounts that had been celebrating and lauding him only five seconds ago, and I’m speaking specifically about Instagram here because that’s the only social media platform that I really use with any degree of regularity on a personal level. But those same accounts were ridiculously quick to jump on the bandwagon and start sharing this controversial clip, condemning what was said, and stirring up further heat for KSI in the comments beneath the posts.

[00:09:02] And although over the next few days the other Sidemen came under a little bit of fire for laughing and encouraging KSI instead of reprimanding him for using this slur, most of the heat was squarely focused on KSI himself. Particularly, it would seem, because he acknowledged that what he was about to say was controversial, and decided to say it anyway.

[00:09:28] And again, this story made mainstream news outlets. But if you look at the posts on social media, and then look beneath them, you’ll see tens of thousands of comments with people’s reactions ranging from simply expressing their disappointment, to calling for KSI to apologise and educate himself, right the way through to calling for him to be cancelled completely, and some equally horrendous and unacceptable verbal assaults on him as a person.

[00:09:59] Now, less than an hour after all of this kicked off, the video was taken down. And KSI put out a public apology on his Twitter. He said, “I want to apologise for saying a racial slur in a recent Sidemen video. There’s no excuse, no matter the circumstances. I shouldn’t have said it and I’m sorry. I’ve always said to my audience that they shouldn’t worship me or put me on a pedestal because I’m human. I’m not perfect, I’m gonna mess up in life, and lately I’ve been messing up a lot. So I’ve decided I’m gonna just take a break from social media for a while.”

[00:10:40] And this is where I think we start to see the worst of human beings on social media, and why I’ve called this episode Clickbait, Controversy, and Cancel Culture. Because no-one, including KSI, is disputing that what was said was controversial. This controversy wasn’t the title of the Sidemen YouTube video, but it made for plenty of clickbait-style posts and headlines from news and gossip accounts across social media. And maybe I’m being cynical, but I doubt very much that this is because the owners and broadcasters behind these accounts think that this is important news for you to know.

[00:11:20] To be clear, I’m not saying that it’s unimportant to call out racism and slurs when we see them. But we are in the middle of a cost of living crisis, a war, and the usual healthy dose of political scandals, so it’s not exactly a slow news day either. These clickbait headlines and these posts are put out for one reason, and one reason only: they get views and they get engagement.

[00:11:49] And the engagement on this story in particular was super high because, as I’ve already said, KSI’s fame and popularity, and therefore his audience, came from social media. So, you had people calling KSI out for what he’d said, people defending what he’d said as light-hearted comedy, people debating how he should respond, and of course, calling for him to be cancelled completely.

[00:12:16] And regardless of whether these responses are positive or negative, views and engagement equal money for the owners of those accounts. Either directly, if they’re putting out videos on platforms like YouTube, where they get a share of the advertising revenue, or indirectly through sponsored or paid post deals that they get with brands, which they attract because their accounts have large followings and high engagement.

[00:12:45] So, they know exactly what they’re doing. In my opinion, it’s very self-serving. It’s not about creating a space for healthy debate, and discussion, and opinion. And the more wild the comments get, the more people jump in and the higher the engagement gets, which is of course exactly what these accounts want.

[00:13:08] Now, the plot thickens a little bit with KSI’s apology. I don’t know him, so I don’t know whether his statement was sincere and genuine, or the result of his PR team doing a bit of damage limitation. Maybe we’ll never know. But let’s assume that it is genuine and he is, as he says, truly sorry and just human.

[00:13:32] He’s provided what many people were calling for in the comments; recognition of the gravity of what he said and an apology. But this doesn’t seem to be enough for many people, because even this apology was heavily criticised. There was a recurrent suggestion that he simply shouldn’t have said it in the first place, and he was further accused of hiding or taking the easy way out by going on a social media hiatus, effectively laying low until there was a new news cycle and the internet had turned on someone else.

[00:14:08] Now, I don’t disagree that he shouldn’t have said it in the first place, and neither it seems does KSI. But it is done, and he can’t undo it, so if we take a pragmatic approach, we really need to ask ourselves what else can be done at this stage. I would have thought that him taking a break from social media to reflect on his actions would have been considered appropriate.

[00:14:34] Instead of churning out yet more content like this never happened, content which, by the way, he would profit from based on those same models of ad revenue and engagement, he’s decided to take a time out. And that’s why I say that social media really loves to love you one minute, and hate you the next. And in all of this, regardless of what he’s said, people seem to have forgotten, as he points out in his apology, that he’s human.

[00:15:04] Social media can be an absolutely savage place, and for anyone, regardless of what they’ve done, having people constantly criticise you to the point where what they’re saying has gone beyond the particular incident in question has got to be tough. Reading comments from people calling for you to be violently assaulted or killed, questioning your character, your morals, and your values, criticising your entire body of work, and digging up things that you might have said or done in the past when you were young and dumb would undoubtedly start to take its toll on anyone’s mental health.

[00:15:44] And this can, and it does, happen to regular people all the time as a result of videos going viral. The fact that everything lives forever on the internet doesn’t help, but it’s worse for celebrities and influencers like KSI because there seems to be this general consensus that if you have put yourself in the public eye, then you are fair game for any assaults and attacks.

[00:16:09] I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect public figures to uphold certain standards, given the influence and the reach that they have. But I do think that sometimes we forget that these people are human, just like you and I, and we can be very unforgiving when these people make mistakes online.

[00:16:29] There is literally nobody on the planet who has never made a mistake, or said something that unintentionally caused offence, or said something that they’ve instantly regretted. Literally nobody. However, most of us get to make those mistakes in private, and even those of us that do it publicly will likely not be subjected to cancel culture. At least not on the scale of a celebrity, or to the extent where it might impact our ability to make a living, if we don’t make money from social media and content creation.

[00:17:06] So, at worst, it might be a bit of backlash in the comments, the loss of a few followers, and after a while it all blows over, and we get to move on. But that’s not the case for someone like KSI. Imagine that you’ve done something wrong, and you’re feeling genuinely embarrassed and remorseful, but everywhere you go it keeps being brought back up, and you’re not being allowed to move on from it.

[00:17:34] That’s what going on social media would have been like for him. So I can empathise with him wanting to take a break, especially as he mentioned that he’s been slipping up a lot lately. A period of reflection kind of seems sensible to me. But that’s not the end of the drama.

[00:17:52] Because in recognition of the fact that this controversy was mainly born out of ignorance about the exact connotations of this particular slur, many members of the South Asian community were calling for KSI to go and educate himself on the history of the word to understand why it isn’t a laughing matter, rather than slinking off into the shadows and waiting for things to blow over. And that’s exactly what he did.

[00:18:19] In the last week, KSI has visited a Gurdwara in Kent, which is a Sikh temple, and also a mosque in Bradford, both times talking with religious leaders and members of the community. How do we know this? Well, because he’s posted clips of these visits onto social media, and this has kicked off yet another round of posts and headlines and comments.

[00:18:43] Some people are calling it a PR stunt and questioning why he had to publicise these visits and didn’t make them in private. And at this point, I have to say that I really feel for KSI, because the poor man is damned if he does, and he’s damned if he doesn’t. Trying to navigate cancel culture, if you are unfortunate enough to be subjected to it, is difficult.

[00:19:07] And we have this modern day concept of publicly presenting what we call receipts, or evidence to prove our actions or our version of events. So basically, if you don’t have the receipts, it didn’t happen. If it’s not on social media, if I can’t go and google it, if you don’t have pictures, then it didn’t happen at all.

[00:19:30] So maybe it was a PR stunt. Who knows? But somehow, I’m not convinced that KSI putting out a tweet or making a video from the comfort of his bedroom saying that he’s visited these places and talked with these people from these communities to educate himself would have cut it. Social media would have been calling for the receipts and the proof. They simply wouldn’t have believed him.

[00:19:56] So that’s the story of KSI, and I think that it highlights some of the worst facets of the social media experience for us as humans. We love a rags to riches story, but we love the fall from grace of an icon narrative even more. For news and gossip outlets, there is clear motivation in the form of money. But I wanted to share a little bit about why we react in this way as individuals and consumers. And, more importantly, how you can try to be mindful and conscious of the ways in which you personally use social media to avoid contributing towards such negative experiences.

[00:20:35] The research shows that we’re less inhibited online and don’t follow the same social restrictions as we do in face-to-face communications. And this happens for a couple of reasons. One, we get to be anonymous and invisible if we choose to. So we don’t have to take responsibility for what we say and do, and how it might land with the person on the receiving end.

[00:20:57] Two, the interactions are asynchronous. So we might post something horrible, but not have to face the responses and the ramifications of what we’d said immediately in that moment. And three, there’s minimal authority online compared to in the real world. So we don’t fear being told off for our actions or our words. We feel more comfortable behaving abusively online because when we see others doing it, it normalises that behaviour and effectively it gives us moral permission to behave in the same way.

[00:21:30] The types of conversations that we engage in online are often also much deeper. They’re more emotionally charged and they can be more political in nature, whereas offline, we prefer our conversations to remain neutral and we focus on lighter topics because we expect to be interrupted or challenged.

[00:21:49] Online, we know that we can go on a rant and no-one can stop us, except maybe a character limit. There was even a study that found that people were less politically polarised after turning off Facebook for a month, and that’s without getting into the whole Cambridge Analytica US election influencing saga.

[00:22:08] Professor Sherry Turkle, who is a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, and also the author of many very interesting books about our social interactions and interpersonal relationships in the digital age, has also suggested that we’re much less empathetic than we used to be.

[00:22:29] We’re spending increasing amounts of time online, getting cheap dopamine fixes, and engaging in narcissistic behaviours, instead of talking to real people offline. And that’s reducing our emotional empathy and our willingness to socialise as humans. And of course, online, everyone is presenting this highly-curated version of themselves. But by only interacting as highly-edited, perfect versions of ourselves online, we’re losing the ability to empathise with others and becoming much less forgiving of their mistakes and their flaws. As I said earlier in the episode, there is literally no-one on the planet who has never made a mistake, and yet we treat others as though they should be perfect at all times.

[00:23:16] We also tend to connect to people who are similar to us, which creates echo chambers that reduce our ability to understand and empathise with perspectives that are different to our own. So for everyone who understands the connotations of that particular racial slur, either instinctively or because they’ve been educated as to its origins and meanings, the idea that it would even enter someone’s head as a suggestion in a game show seems completely ridiculous. But that is due, in part, because of the people that they’re surrounded with. Those are other people that share this perspective, they share this knowledge, and they also wouldn’t dream of saying it. So that reinforces our own view.

[00:23:59] And again, I’m not excusing KSI’s actions, but for me, I really think this was clearly an act of ignorance. And looking at the fact that the Sidemen that were in his company on that panel laughed instead of calling him out, this could simply be a reflection of the world that he exists in and the people that he’s surrounded himself with, none of whom have ever known the true meaning of that word.

[00:24:23] Sherry Turkle has also suggested that constant exposure to emotionally charged stories online, just like this one, instinctively causes us to shut down to protect ourselves, suppressing emotions like compassion and empathy. Which may have made some people react more practically towards this controversy.

[00:24:45] Unfortunately, social media is simply not set up to get the best from us as human beings. According to social sciences and technology researcher Martin Hilbert, social media algorithms change our behaviour and amplify negative human traits because they have one purpose: to capture people’s attention.

[00:25:07] Negative traits like narcissism, vanity, gullibility, anger, envy, lust, greed, these are all the easiest hooks to grab the attention of groups, because evolution has tuned our brains to respond to all of these societally communicated indicators of threats to our survival, which makes these lower emotions the currency of the attention economy. So, we respond to negative posts with more negativity, satisfying an innate psychological desire to do something, and becoming a vector for spreading negativity further in the process.

[00:25:50] And the machine-learning algorithms that power social media platforms have therefore become adept at discovering and exploiting negative human traits, by analysing our digital behaviours and adapting themselves in real time in response, amplifying those negative traits until we become addicted to using those social media platforms.

[00:26:13] Every click feeds the collaborative filtering algorithm on a societal level, shaping what we see in our feeds, the notifications we receive, and the group suggestions that we’re sent. And this creates a feedback loop that affects our own wellbeing. And, because algorithms have no moral or ethical compass, they can’t understand or conceive of the fact that these traits might actually be detrimental to us, and shouldn’t be reinforced and amplified and spread.

[00:26:44] What’s more is that these negative emotional states are easily transferred between the people in a social media network without the need for direct interaction between them, and in the complete absence of non verbal cues. A theory known as the theory of Massive Scale Emotional Contagion.

[00:27:03] So when people experience or express outrage at a controversy like this, the emotion of outrage is transferred to others in the network, irrespective of whether they’re conscious of this transfer or whether they’ve engaged directly with the people that are most outraged in the network.

[00:27:22] And so we see this kind of mass outrage result, and a barrage of comments in an attempt to quell this outrage and feel like we’ve done something constructive in the situation. I.e., you might be a little bit outraged when you learn about the story, but reading all of these comments from complete strangers who were also outraged, only builds further outrage in your mind.

[00:27:46] So, how do you continue to use social media without getting swept up into the vortex of these kinds of controversies? It’s actually quite simple, but it takes practice. You need to slow down. You need to stop and you need to think before you react to the things that you see in your feed or that you’re sent by your friends, no matter how itchy your fingers might be to spring into action and add your two cents worth.

[00:28:12] Think about the accounts that you’re following. The more gossipy and trashy they are, the more negative content you’re going to see in your feed because they want you to engage. So you might want to consider having a bit of a clear out, having a bit of cull, and unfollowing some of these accounts.

[00:28:30] Think before you click on clickbait-style or controversial headlines and posts. Remember, with each click you are feeding the social media algorithm, and it’s only going to show you more controversy as a result. It thinks that this is what you like. Think before you smash that like button or leave a comment. Are you constructively contributing to the discourse or simply stoking the fire?

[00:28:57] Now, I have to be absolutely clear here that we’re fortunate to live in the free world where you have freedom of speech. I’m not suggesting that you censor yourself and your feelings. I’m simply suggesting that you take time to think about what you want the end goal of your comment or your like to be. Is it to show your stance or show solidarity? Is it to educate people further on why something is or isn’t offensive? Is it to correct factual inaccuracies?

[00:29:26] What is your goal? Because if you’re just liking someone’s negative, rude, or offensive comment because you thought it was funny, even though you’d never dream of saying it yourself, you’re effectively acting like the Sidemen Collective did by laughing from the sidelines at a situation that probably isn’t funny to someone, somewhere. And even though you haven’t actually said anything, this kind of behaviour might be seen as a little passive aggressive, and it contributes to the algorithm’s understanding of what content to prioritise. So it’s not a harmless like.

[00:30:02] And if you do enter the comments, and start to find yourself in a back and forth situation with others, it’s okay sometimes to simply disengage. You aren’t going to change everyone’s mind or convince everyone that you’re right, no matter how logical, rational or factual your argument is.

[00:30:21] Some people simply aren’t logical or rational. Some people are too emotionally charged up to listen to reason. And some people just want to fight on the internet because they’ve got nothing better to do with their time. There’s a quote that I’ve always loved. I’m not sure where it originated from, but it says, “Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.” So, don’t engage with idiots on the comments.

[00:30:52] And finally, try to remember that there is a real life person, or persons, behind every account, and that person has feelings just like you. Everyone is human, and we all make mistakes, so sometimes you need to show a little grace and a little compassion. I’m not talking about showing empathy or forgiveness towards people who are clearly not remorseful or deliberately trying to incite violence or hatred. Not everyone can be Nelson Mandela. I’m just saying choose your words carefully and try to be kind. Social media would be a much better place if everyone was.

[00:31:33] That’s it for today’s episode. I hope that you’ve enjoyed it and that you feel a little more clued up on why social media has become such a negative space. But, more importantly, on how you can do your part to make it a more positive experience for everyone, including yourself.

[00:31:51] For this week’s challenge, I’m challenging you to avoid clicking on clickbait links and on controversial headlines for one whole week. I want you to see how it makes you feel. Does it change what shows up in your feeds? Do you feel more or less positive about the world? Let me know.

[00:32:09] The place to share your experiences is in our dedicated virtual community space, The Digital Diet Lounge. It’s a place for me and you, all my listeners, to come together and connect over all things digital wellness in between episodes. There’s a specific room for the podcast, and that’s where we can chat about this challenge, and you can connect with other listeners who are taking part. It’s completely free and I’ll put a link to the space in the show notes so that you can get involved.

[00:32:38] You can, of course, still share your experience on your social media platform of choice, if you want to. All my handles can be found on the show notes page so that you can tag me. And, as always, if you prefer to keep things private then you can email me directly at, and I promise to reply to every single message.

[00:33:00] The show notes for today’s episode can be found over on my website at, and that’s also where you’ll find links to everything that we’ve talked about today, including The Digital Diet Lounge community, where you can take part in this week’s challenge. I know you’re busy and your time is incredibly valuable. So, as always, I thank you for choosing to spend a little bit of your day with me, and I’ll see you next time.

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Marisha Pink

Meet Marisha

Marisha Pink is a Certified Digital Wellness Coach who is on a mission to empower women everywhere to live life more intentionally in an age of digital distractions. She helps women create healthier digital habits that better balance the technology in their lives, so that they can take back control of their time, reclaim their happiness, and live their best lives offline.

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