By Laila Azhar
In 2007, 20 year old Amanda Knox was accused of murdering her roommate, Meredith Kercher, while on a foreign exchange trip in Italy. She spent nearly four years in prison, until she was acquitted in 2015. Throughout her trial, social media was flooded with depictions of Knox as a “shameless” party girl. A man named Rudy Guede was later arrested and found guilty of Kercher’s murder. At the Criminal Justice festival in Modena, Knox spoke on her experiences with the media, saying, “I wasn’t innocent until proven guilty, I was a wise, drugged-up whore.”
Fourteen years later, college sophomore Lauren Zarras posted a video on TikTok of herself surprising her long distance boyfriend, Robert McCoy. “Robbie had no idea,” reads her caption. Almost immediately after the upload, the video went viral.
“You can FEEL the awkward tension bro,” the top comment reads.
“The more I watch this, the more I resent this guy,” says another.
The video has amassed over sixty-three million views, and #couchguy has well over a
billion. For weeks after Lauren’s TikTok went viral, my own For You Page was filled with videos of people recreating the TikTok, exaggerating what was perceived to be Robert, or “Couch Guy’s,” disinterest.
These two situations have notable differences– being accused of cheating on your girlfriend is very different of being convicted for murdering your roommate– but the way both Knox and McCoy were treated has its roots in a distinct feature of social media.
“The internet is governed by incentives that make it impossible to be a full person while interacting with it,” Jia Tolentino wrote in her essay, “The I in Internet.” She goes on to detail the ways in which social media places a heavy emphasis on adhering to “personal brands.” Producing content that fits within a specific niche often increases the likelihood of “going viral,” but any deviation from a particular brand harms chances of success with the algorithms. As a result, on social media, we don’t interact with people in their entirety. Instead, we interact with carefully calibrated personas, chosen in order to be marketable.
The internet presence of both Knox and McCoy will forever be defined by a snapshot of their lives. Neither of them was afforded the liberty of constructing their own “personal brand.” They were thrust into the spotlight unwillingly, and made “accidental celebrities.” Their identities were fragmented into caricatures, and Knox and McCoy were viewed as symbols rather than people. The language surrounding them demonstrates this dehumanization– people felt as if their comments were directed towards “Foxy Knoxy” and “Couch Guy,” instead of Amanda Knox and Robert McCoy. They were viewed as symbols. Anger towards Amanda Knox was viewed as righteous anger towards murderers, and anger towards McCoy was viewed as anger towards every cheating ex-boyfriend. Often, the comments made about Amanda took a distinctly misogynistic tone. Amanda’s history of attending parties and her relationship with her boyfriend were scrutinized, due to the “party girl” narrative constructed around her. The comments about McCoy, on the other hand, were often dressed up in the language of feminism. “Girls know vibes of other girls…WE ALL GOT THE SAME FEELING, sorry you don’t wanna see it” or “this video honestly gives me ptsd because its just so obvious to others but never yourself” as some commenters put it. The inability of people to view Knox and McCoy as anything other than the online identities that had been constructed for them led to severe internet harassment that didn’t stop when Knox was proven innocent or when both McCoy and his girlfriend made several videos asking people to stop invading their privacy.
We’ve grown increasingly aware of the harmful effects of online public shamings in the last few years. Understanding how many of the central components of social media– including the pressure to force people on the internet into specific boxes— is often missing from these conversations, but it’s essential to understan
ding what we know as “cancel culture.” Keeping in mind that we’re only shown a fragment of someone’s life on social media, and not
viewing them as two dimensional characters for our own entertainment, is essential in preventing more people from facing the harassment that Amanda Knox and Robert McCoy faced.