Study after study has shown that women, and especially women of color, are disproportionately targeted by cyberbullying on social media platforms. But few have attracted the level of racist and sexist trolling that Meghan, The Duchess of Sussex has in recent years.
“For my own self-preservation, I have not been on social media for a very long time,” the duchess told Fortune’s Emma Hinchliffe at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit, which kicked off Tuesday. “I made a personal choice to not have any account, so I don’t know what’s out there, and in many ways that’s helpful for me.”
Over the past four years, the actor turned duchess turned activist has been dissected and, in many instances, disparaged across the internet. She spoke about the consequences of toxic digital behavior at an earlier Fortune conference last month and revisited the topic—with a bent toward self-care takeaways and other thoughts on how women can lead with both caution and courage—during this week’s event. Meghan spoke with Fortune virtually from her home in California.
Building healthier online communities has become a focus for Meghan. Along with her husband, Prince Harry, she founded the Archewell Foundation, which aims to address and mitigate the negative side of social media and make headway on other causes that are core to the couple. Her conversation with Fortune comes at a time when all eyes are on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and the impact that misinformation and conspiracy campaigns that flourish on these sites could have on the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
Of course, there is also the issue of the very real mental health impact that social media usage has on many users. “I have a lot of concerns for people that have become obsessed with it [social media],” said Meghan. “People who are addicted to drugs are called users and people who are on social media are called users. There is something in there, algorithmically, that is creating this obsession.”
The duchess’s advice to the audience of rising women leaders was to be selective, and to not reward bad behavior through retweets and reposts. “As you’re out there building your brand, as you are out there engaging with friends online, just be conscious of what you’re doing,” said Meghan. “Understand that it is not limited to that one moment—that you are creating an echo chamber for yourself.”
To be sure, being a public figure has always come with its perks—and its pitfalls. But the level and scale of criticism enabled by social media platforms is unprecedented. And for whatever reasons, Meghan has attracted some of the worst kind of attention the internet has to offer. It is no wonder, then, that the duchess analyzes her every move and choice of words—before others do. As a new mother in the spotlight, she has even more at stake when choosing how to use her platform.
“My gut is that it makes you more courageous,” she said when asked if motherhood has made her more courageous or cautious. “It makes you so concerned for the world they [your children] are going to inherit. At the same time, I am cautious of putting my family at risk by [saying] certain things—I try to be very clear with what I say, and not make it controversial.”
That is easier said than done. Last month, the American duchess and her husband spoke out in an effort to encourage Americans to vote in the 2020 election. To be sure, the couple was subsequently scrutinized, criticized, and even accused of interfering with the upcoming election by some—at a scale only made possible by the internet.
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