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It's Time We Talk About Tully Smyth

Picture, it’s 2013: Deep eye-liner and side fringes are in, as part of the Indie Sleaze era. No one knows you better than your Tumblr – you express your mood by liking pages with statements like ‘I Love Pineapples’ – and Instagram? It’s used mainly for putting filters on selfies.

In many ways, former Big Brother contestant Tully Smyth was one of Australia’s first influencers of the post social-media world. Consequently, she was also one of the first influencers to experience the full wrath and rage of keyboard warriors. At the time of her season airing, the Facebook page “I Hate Tully from Big Brother” had 63,000 likes.

Her “crime”? Making a mistake under the public eye in a stressful and emotionally pressing social experiment very few have experienced. Tully entered the house while in a relationship with her girlfriend at the time, Tahlia Farrant. However, while in the house she developed a relationship with a fellow housemate, Anthony Drew. As seen on her blog, Young Blood Social, Tully has owned the fact that she made a mistake in an ‘alien situation’, completely different to the kinds of environments you’d encounter in the outside world.

“Yes - we put ourselves in the limelight. Yes, we do receive certain benefits such as invites to some cool parties and free clothes here and there. But do we deserve the online bullying or constant public scrutiny after the cameras have stopped rolling? No. We’re human. We’re people. We have feelings and insecurities. We make mistakes- just like you. We just happen to be silly enough to agree to have them filmed for a national audience.”

In the Big Brother House, you are not able to talk to your friends, family or outside world – meaning Tully could not talk to her girlfriend about her feelings for someone else or get advice from her usual support network. But she owned her mistake and did not blame the editing of the show. Tully’s situation serves as a perfect illustration of how we need to give people the time and space to acknowledge and apologise for their mistakes, and particularly space to apologise to those directly affected by their actions (AKA Tahlia) and not the rest of the country.

The thing is, making a mistake (even publicly) does not give us a free pass to relentlessly bully someone online. Tully’s situation was very much unprecedented, given that it was really the start of ‘Social Media’ and perhaps, even the Network could not foresee the extent to which online keyboard warriors would retaliate. While initially able to receive assistance from Channel Nine’s psychologist, Tully was able to get the network to pay for a psychologist of her choosing, to ensure independence from the network. On her blog, Tully advocated for all reality show contestants to be able to access independent psychologist checks for at least twelve months after their involvement on the show.

The awareness of online bullying and mental health is much more recognised by Networks and Reality TV Producers now, in light of legal safeguards that may extend and protect contestants.

For example, Brodie’s Law provides that cyberbullying may constitute an offence if it involves stalking someone – Section 21A Crimes Act 1958 (Vic) provides that a person will have committed stalking if they repeatedly contact or publish on social media platforms statements about the victim – which could include offensive or threatening comments about a reality TV contestant. At a national level, Section 474.17(1) Criminal Code 1995 (Cth) provides that it is a crime to use the internet in a way which is ‘menacing, harassing or offensive’ to another such that it has a ‘serious effect’ on the person.

Further, there is a greater onus on Media Companies to protect contestants following the High Court ruling of Fairfax Media Publications Pty Ltd v Voller [2021], which found that these companies may be liable for defamatory comments made by the public on the media company’s social media accounts. Media companies may therefore be more likely to ban, disable or limit comments on pages to avoid liability. This is an interesting development when compared to earlier seasons of Big Brother, including Tully’s seasons, where, viewers were encouraged to “tweet” about the show, to get their comments on the TV screen.

Contrastingly, this year, comments were turned off on posts made for Bachelorette contestants while their social media accounts were managed by producers.

I think it is the public who owe Tully an apology for not giving her the space to apologise and learn from her mistake that she had made - let’s not forget - in an extremely ‘alien’ and unfamiliar situation. While her treatment may largely and unfortunately be attributed to the ‘start’ of social media, her experiences have served as an example and effective push towards the laws we have in place and are developing today to tackle and address online cyberbullying and keyboard warriors.

Today you can catch Tully on her Instagram @tee-smyth and on her podcast Too Much Tully. She was also competing in Big Brother’s new Back to the Future Season that you can stream here!

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