This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2024

Viral load

What happens to people who become internet famous?

Ashleigh-Rae Thomas

A flurry of "likes" (thumbs up), hearts, and surprised faces compete for attention

Nathan Kanasawe was 23 when they first went viral. Early one September morning in their town of Sudbury, Ontario, they decided to go on a 2 a.m. drive with a friend. While driving, they saw someone testing a Boston Dynamics robot dog.

“I did a U-turn because we’re like, ‘Well, what the fuck was that?’ And then, when we pulled up beside it, we were like, ‘That’s so cool. Can we take a video of it?’” In the video, Kanasawe and their friend could be heard saying “oh my God!” and “I love you!” excitedly to Spot, the black and yellow dog.

“I was really amazed by it. I didn’t have any other thoughts other than, ‘Oh my god, it’s a robot.’ I had no real thoughts about what it meant, politically or socially. I was just like, ‘It’s a robot dog!’”

When they went to bed, the video had gained about 60 retweets. They were woken up the next morning by their notifications going off as the post reached 50,000 retweets. The video later hit 14 million views and had thousands of retweets. Boston Dynamics themselves had to put out a statement. While the video continued trending, people started digging up Kanasawe’s tweets about being a K-pop stan, and posting pictures of their face.

It was 2020 and, though many people shared Kanasawe’s wonder, others began to criticize him for being excited about seeing the robot. “At first people were like, ‘Whoa, that’s really freaky.’ But then, people were like, ‘Have you guys heard about Boston Dynamics opening up a military contract? They’re gonna use the Boston Dynamics dogs as police dogs.’ I was like, ‘That’s fucking awful. But I didn’t know that.’”

Twitter users began commenting things like, “So, you love police dogs,” and calling Kanasawe a “bootlicker.” Some even suggested that they were part of Boston Dynamics’ marketing agency.

Kanasawe, who is Ojibwe, attempted to explain his position by responding to comments on the original tweet. “I was trying to [tell] people…I understood that these things were dangerous to people of colour as well. But it was hard to respond to everybody. I mean, I’m getting hundreds of replies in just a few minutes, over the course of maybe three days. Doing damage control in that type of situation is kind of impossible.”

Kanasawe says they didn’t realize people would become so hostile so quickly. “Because all of the comments on the video were negative, it started leaking into my other posts.” Despite the fact that they tried to maintain separation between their family and social media, Kanasawe’s family became aware of their Twitter account after the video went viral. Kanasawe says they never felt unsafe, but they did feel “exposed” and “embarrassed” as the tweet started to follow them in their everyday life.

“I had no privacy. I don’t think I realized that it was going to affect my internet footprint significantly. Ninety percent of the searches on my full name, that robot dog will just show up,” Kanasawe says. The negative backlash and subsequent pile-on led Kanasawe to delete his tweet, then his entire account. Out of an abundance of caution, he made his new Twitter account and previous Instagram accounts private.

“I really didn’t want it to happen again,” they say. “I felt very out of control of whatever narrative was being placed on that video. I think that because I didn’t have any control over it, a lot of people made assumptions about me and about my friend, too,” Kanasawe explains, noting that they hated it. They ended up wondering: should they continue to be this online?


Why are people so comfortable being awful to others on social media?

Faye Mishna, a University of Toronto professor in the faculty of social work, has studied bullying and cyberbullying for decades. She says there are different factors that lead to people choosing to be bullies online. One of the factors is, of course, the perception of anonymity. “If you don’t know me, you don’t see the effect that you have on me,” Mishna says. “Being online can disinhibit because it seems impersonal. You don’t see the impact you have.”

Mishna’s studies focus on how bullying, cyberbullying, and more recently, sexting, affect kids and young people—groups for whom being online has always been part of life. “When we first started, every family had a computer. They didn’t have small devices. [Those] changed everything. It was as large as the Industrial Revolution. Once you have cars and the industrial revolution, you can’t act as though you don’t.”

Statistics from Media Technology Monitor say, “Two in five Canadian kids aged two to 17 own a cell phone and 60 percent have used one in the past month. Usage (87 percent) and ownership (81 percent) are the highest among teens.” If you own a smartphone, chances are you’ve got at least one social media account. The 2018 Canadian Internet Use Survey says social media was regularly used by nine out of 10 Canadians between the ages of 15 to 34.

Since devices make us more connected, there’s more opportunity for young people to experience cyber victimization. According to Elizabeth Englander for the Journal of Pediatrics and Pediatric Medicine, “Increased digital exposure to a potential perpetrator of cyberbullying seems to increase the odds of victimization, in much the same way that greater exposure to a traditional aggressor can increase the odds of becoming an in-person target.” Simply put: the more time you spend online, the higher the possibility of being subject to cruelty on the internet.

The Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) says in a recent study that most Canadians think social media usage has a “neutral impact on their overall wellbeing.” With that being said, there is a significant increase in the number of people who feel it can be “detrimental.”

“Slightly more Canadians feel social media is harmful (20 percent) to their wellbeing than in 2020, when 16 percent described it as such. Similarly, fewer see it as beneficial,” the study says.

The effect that cyberbullying can have on a young mind is “terrible,” Mishna says. “For young people, it can affect your ability to concentrate, to go to school, to socialize. It can make them depressed; it can make them scared to reach out, it can make them anxious.”

The Health Education & Behavior study by Meaghan C. McHugh, Sandra L. Saperstein, and Robert S. Gold “OMG U #Cyberbully! An Exploration of Public Discourse About Cyberbullying on Twitter” backs up that claim. It said that cyberbullying can lead to anger, low self-esteem, depression, and suicidal ideation.

While there is ample research about cyberbullying of kids and adolescents, the data for the phenomenon among adults is more scant. Statistics Canada discovered in a 2019 study that a quarter of young adults aged 18 to 29 years old experienced cybervictimization in 2018, with receiving unwanted sexually suggestive or explicit messages and aggressive or threatening emails, social media or text messages being among the most common forms.

The numbers also show that queer and Indigenous youth, of which Kanasawe identifies as both, are also at risk for even higher levels of cyberbullying. In fact, 52 percent of youth who don’t identify as male or female reported being victimized online.

The Statistics Canada study continues, “Besides gender, the likelihood of being victimized online was greater among sexually diverse youth (sexual attraction other than the opposite sex) and First Nations youth living off-reserve.” This means young queer and Indigenous people may be less likely to express themselves online, leaving them with fewer outlets to share and connect.


The attacks Kanasawe faced changed how they interact with others. Now, they tend to guard their posts, when they decide to make them, by keeping them private and limiting their number of followers. “I didn’t want a lot of people seeing tweets, and if they did, then I would delete them,” they say. “It kind of changed the way that I was on social media.”

On going viral, Mishna says it’s important to know that that kind of response is a possibility. “You can’t really anticipate it except just to know that it could happen. I think we really need to provide support for people [being bullied]. One of the things is, why is it important not to do that, not to join in and shame, because it really does affect someone terribly.”

In an interview with Paper Magazine, then 19-year-old Jazmine Stabler recalled going viral in a cruel meme posted on Twitter. The meme made fun of her facial tumor, which Stabler was born with and had grown to accept. “Why post me? I’m just over here in Alabama living my best life, attending college, minding my own business.” Her comments came after her prom pictures were posted on Twitter with the explicit intent of making fun of the young woman. She took it in stride, but not everyone who unwillingly has content go viral is able to cope with all the negative attention.

In 2019, actress Constance Wu received heavy backlash for a series of tweets criticizing the renewal of the show she starred in, Fresh Off the Boat. After taking a three-year break from social media, Wu said in 2022 that the negative reception she received led her to attempt suicide.

Going viral didn’t affect Kanasawe’s mental health the way it did Wu’s. Things took a weird turn about a year after the video was posted, though. Someone had edited the audio to include the n-word and antisemitic phrases. Kanasawe could do nothing about it, since they previously licenced the video to American pop culture blog Barstool Sports and no longer owned it. This made it impossible to get the video taken down after it went to the wrong side of the internet. Kanasawe was especially hurt that people couldn’t tell the video had been vandalized, and that others were finding the edited video funny.

“My friend and I, we’re not Jewish, and we’re not Black,” they explained. “But if we had been either of those two things, it would have probably taken a mental toll on us to see not only just the video, but the response to that video. To people just laughing and cheering it on. It would have been horrible.”

One of the worst parts of facing this kind of thing is the sense of powerlessness, the lack of agency over whether and how others understand us. “[Cyberbullying] really needs to be dealt with as a community,” Mishna says. She says it’s important that people not just pile negative comments onto viral posts. “One thing that can help is bystanders intervening. A bystander can respond privately to the victimized person just to provide some support. They are incredibly important, and research has shown that when bystanders do jump in and say something, it really makes a difference.”

Nowadays, Kanasawe doesn’t use Twitter that much. They’ve mostly migrated to TikTok, an app with its own host of cyberbullying and negativity. Though, their time on the app is spent trying to help others in the queer community. They run the account More Binders, a mutual-aid program that provides free binders to trans youth. They’ve even gone viral on TikTok, but this time around, it was more positive. “When I had a video go semi-viral [on TikTok], it was for a good purpose. That video was me talking about how I wanted to send trans kids binders for Christmas,” they say. They understand how expensive binders are, and they’re committed to sending the gender-affirming clothing to trans youth who can’t afford it.

“It’s just ironic now because without that video going even semi-viral, I wouldn’t have been able to run More Binders for the last three-ish years.”

It’s not going viral that’s the problem, then; it’s how we behave in groups when we don’t like something. Taking a second to think before commenting can go a long way toward helping ensure those who are already marginalized have a safer life, both online and off.

Ashleigh-Rae Thomas is a writer and facilitator currently based in Toronto. They have contributed to publications like the Toronto Star, Broadview Magazine,, and many others. In 2022, they were chosen as the CJF-CBC/Radio-Canada Black Women’s Journalism Fellow. They have also organized cultural gatherings to support activism around Black liberation. They are deeply committed to centering Black queer experiences in all of their endeavours.

Show Comments