Is it ever OK to share private messages on social media?

Last week, Jonah Hill's ex shared text screenshots showing what appeared to be controlling behaviour. Whether that's an acceptable thing to do is a thorny question to answer.

Among the assortment of screenshotted DMs that populate my camera roll, a handful stand out. There’s a 2015 message to my mum that reads: I was sick all over my clothes last night. Please don’t tell grandma and grandad.”

Then an incendiary Slack message intended for a private DM, but accidentally sent to a group chat. My favourite, though, is a 2014 exchange between my old housemate and her dealer, in which she confuses his offer of amnesia”, the weed strain, with him actually having amnesia. Legit?! Sorry to hear!” she texted. He had to call her to clarify.

But that’s just my camera roll. If you looked through my Whatsapp messages, you’d be inundated with screenshots of DMs: some from me, some from mates. They run the gamut from break-ups and arguments to arbitrary gossip. Essentially, ever since smartphones blessed (or cursed) us with the ability to screenshot back in 2007, no conversation comes with guaranteed privacy.

We might be content to share our silly little screenshots with the world, or for better or worse, our drunk texts, fights, and embarrassing dating woes via private chats with pals. But what if – and this is the stuff of nightmares – someone on Twitter or Instagram got hold of them?

These situations usually come in the form of staged screenshots gunning for virality, or tiresome dating discourse via dating app screenshots framed as horror stories”. Occasionally, this has yielded DMs worthy of public consumption. We’ve seen Dominic Cummings call Matt Hancock totally fucking hopeless”; Adam Levine’s terrible sexts; the emotional capacitymeme. Meanwhile, Andrew Tate, charged with rape, human trafficking and forming criminal gang to exploit women, has seen screenshots of private messages go public.

Still, the debate rages on about the ethics of leaking these conversations publicly, and what our screenshot etiquette should be. A stranger’s slightly cringe, but innocuous, dating app opener? A bitchy remark saved for ammo later? A sexy DM from a celeb who’s married? Aren’t people entitled to privacy when they send something for your eyes only? Isn’t this particularly true for close friends, family, or partners? Well, yes – but it’s context-dependent. The person presently caught in the crosshairs of this conversation? Jonah Hill.

For those who don’t know, here’s some context: over the weekend, Hill’s ex, surfer Sarah Brady, accused the actor of emotional abuse, sharing a number of screenshots of messages he allegedly sent her while they were together.

In them, Hill outlines his relationship boundaries”, including prohibiting Brady from surfing with men” or having boundaryless inappropriate friendships” with them, modelling, posting photos of herself – a literal surfer – in a bathing suit” on social media, and, most deranged of all, having friendships with women who are in unstable places and from [Brady’s] wild recent past, beyond getting a lunch or coffee or something respectful”.

Another screenshot apparently shows Hill forwarding Brady photos from her own Instagram, depicting those he deems disrespectful (i.e. where she’s surfing in a swimsuit) and which he wants her to delete. Then, in another purported exchange, Hill says: I love how your therapist thinks I suck. I literally am the best boyfriend. On earth.”

Lots to unpack, then; namely Hill’s weaponisation of what’s been called therapy-speak” to coercively control Brady.

Using the language of therapy in this context can allow a person to manipulate their partner by convincing them they’ve done something wrong, with the aim of eventually wearing them down into submission. Hill misuses terms such as triggering” and boundaries” – the latter isn’t something you use to control another person, but rather a limit you have for yourself.

This is made more concerning given Hill made a Netflix documentary, Stutz, about his therapist, which includes candid discussions about how therapy has helped him. Not to mention that Hill has a clothing line, which sells caps embroidered with the tagline Complete unrelenting control”. Shudder.

There’s already been plenty of pontification over what the increasing weaponising of therapy-speak – or, more accurately, social media-speak – means for modern relationships, but this leaking of Hill’s DMs have also reignited the age-old debate about the rules of screenshotting.

It’s gross to post your ex’s private texts unless you have a really solid reason to do so, and this holds true even if your ex was a thin-skinned manipulative weasel,” tweeted journalist Emily Nussbaum. That used to be a given, but it clearly isn’t anymore.”

I agree that it’s gross to post private texts unnecessarily, particularly from someone you were in an intimate relationship with or if the aim is a scorned or unfounded character assassination. We’ve all made mistakes and sent hurtful messages in the heat of an argument, that, if stripped of context and posted online, could embarrass us and paint us in a bad light.

But there’s a major difference between sending an arsey text and coercive, controlling behaviour. Often, it’s important that people bring light to this in order to help others avoid, escape, or even just recognise their own abuse or trauma. As we saw with the #MeToo movement, there’s strength in numbers. Brady sharing these texts has already made other women feel emboldened to do the same, and hopefully in the process enact some kind of change.

So, while screenshots – particularly of your deathly boring dating app chats – tend to be the scourge of the earth, the ability to *hold lock and volume button* does hold at least some revolutionary potential. In a culture where controlling behaviour is often hidden, having a real-world, unadulterated example of what this looks like is, as one Twitter user called it, an educational gift.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’m off to disrespectfully hang out with some unstable women from my wild recent past. We’ve got boundaries to cross and screenshotted gossip to review.

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