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Cloutlighting: From online 'pranks' to toxic social media trend

If you do this to your boyfriend or girlfriend, you deserve to get dumped

Ashitha Nagesh

As if the world weren’t painful enough, there’s a new toxic social media trend that we need to look out for.

We’ve had preating, we’ve had orbiting - but this time, it’s something far more insidious. It’s called 'cloutlighting', which is a mix of social media 'clout' and 'gaslighting'.

Even if you’ve not heard the term, you’re likely to have seen the videos - it's been happening for a while. In them, one half of a pair - usually a couple - does something to intentionally upset their partner. This is often a prank, or a deliberate attempt to pick an argument. The cloutlighter then starts filming on their phone as the inevitable fight ensues.

As if that weren’t bad enough, it’s then posted on social media for people around the world to pass judgement on.

The latest iteration of this, a video that was filmed earlier this year but has just started doing the rounds again, shows a woman crying after her boyfriend ate her last bit of food despite her asking him not to. We’re not going to link to the video, to avoid adding to the woman’s distress.

“I’m not crying about the rib,” she says through tears. “I’m crying because you aggravate me.” In fact, she gets so upset that she calls her mum for support.

In response, the guy tells her that she’s “old milk” - that is, “spoilt”. And then, after filming her crying, he posts it online.

This isn’t the first video to show something like this. For example, just a few years ago one of the biggest social accounts was run by a then couple, Jesse and Jeana, who played some pretty cruel 'pranks' on each other - like when Jesse convinced Jeana that her cat had died, before filming her crying, laughing in her face, and posting it on YouTube.

Although their videos may have been consensual, increasingly people are playing similar 'pranks' on their partners without them agreeing to it.

Jesse films Jeana after revealing that her cat has not diedYouTube
Jesse films Jeana after revealing that her cat hasn't actually died

And it's not confined to romantic relationships, either. Last year, a couple lost custody of two of their five kids after playing 'pranks' on them that were deemed particularly bad, and uploading them to their YouTube channel. The dad denied claims that the pranks were abusive.

The term ‘cloutlighting’ was first coined by Jessica Lindsay, a writer for Metro.co.uk, after she saw the video of the guy eating his girlfriend’s food.

“It made me feel extremely uneasy, ” she tells BBC Three. “But although the majority of the comments were joking at the expense of the woman, other comments showed that I wasn’t alone in seeing red flags in the video.”

The comments she’s referring to, which flooded a recent tweet about the video, stuck up for the woman, saying she must have had a rough day and was looking forward to her food. Some even said she should “dump him”.

“Thinking back," Jessica says, "I remembered all sorts of videos showcasing toxic behaviour that had gone viral, most of the time with nobody highlighting that there was anything wrong.”

After reflecting on all of this, she says, she came up with the word 'cloutlighting'.

“Cloutlighting is a mixture of clout and gaslighting - essentially trying to gain social media engagement by baiting clearly unwilling and uncomfortable people with ‘pranks’ or ‘jokes’.”

Paola Diana, a feminist campaigner and author of books on gaslighting and abuse, agrees - and adds that in some cases cloutlighting could be seen as a form of emotional abuse.

"Whether it's for a million subscribers on YouTube or a few hundred friends on Facebook, these videos have one aim - to incite laughter at the expense of the victim, who in some cases can be in some real distress," she says. 

Paola cites one video where a man pretends to throw his child (replaced by a dummy) over their balcony, and another where a partner 'confesses' to cheating in front of a hidden camera.

"The reactions to these pranks are always going to be extreme, so why would anyone want this shared with their family and friends, let alone the whole world? It's a way of making the victim of the prank look unstable."

Psychotherapist Toby Ingham agrees, adding, "Pranks like this - though I don’t think 'prank' is the right word - sow doubt in the mind of the victim; they leave you thinking, 'Have I overreacted?' The victim is left feeling like they should be laughing about something they don't find funny."

So there you have it, couples. If you’re thinking of making fun of someone you’re with by upsetting them, filming them crying and posting it on social for the RTs, you should expect to get dumped pretty sharpish.

Because think about it - when you’re upset, for whatever reason, the absolute last thing you want is a camera in your face.

If you've been affected by any of the issues discussed, help and support is available here.