The Joburg Post Interview with Bianca Coster: The unfiltered truth of being an online creator in the face of cyberbullying
Bianca Coster, the Swazi-born digital creator and influencer, shares her experience with cyberbullying and the devastating impact it has had on her mental health and career. A Twitter account, known to be a “troll” account, is using Bianca's image as its profile picture, leading people to mistake her for the account's owner.
This has highlighted the need for stricter laws and consequences for online harassment, and for social media platforms to have stricter control and regulations surrounding identity verification.
In this interview, Bianca discusses her journey as a digital creator, her creative process, and her approach to choosing brand partnerships. She also shares how the cyberbullying has impacted her life and career. Bianca believes that social media platforms need to take more responsibility for online harassment and identity theft and that stricter laws need to be put in place to protect online creators and users.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started in the digital creator industry?
I was born in Swaziland, then later moved to SA for high school and never looked back, I then went to Joburg, and studied in UJ, whilst there, that’s when I started with Social Media, I was on Facebook back then, but my brand came together when I joined Instagram during its rise, my following grew- and I shortly after that found myself in the influencing space.
What kind of content do you create and what is your creative process like? How have you adapted your approach to creating content in response to this situation?
I don’t have a specific niche, my content is based on what I feel at the moment, it’s not specifically in lifestyle, fitness, or beauty - it’s not curated at all, I just create and share what I like, I try to be as authentic as possible, and I guess brands resonate with that.
How do you choose the brands you work with and what do you look for in a brand partnership?
That goes back to the authenticity conversation, for example, I don’t drink alcohol, so I don’t take alcohol brand campaigns, and I don’t wear much makeup, these brands do approach me, however, I choose not to work with them because that isn’t authentic to my brand.
When it comes to brand work, I always gravitate towards campaigns that speak to me, I appreciate my natural hair, and that’s why I’ve worked with Darling SA, and Inecto SA, so whatever feels truest to me, and is relatable, is what I’ll gravitate towards in terms of work.
How did you first become aware of the Twitter account using your image as their profile picture? Can you talk us through the process of discovering this and how it impacted you emotionally?
I wasn’t on Twitter, I was never quite interested in it, but my sister was, so one day she showed me a screenshot of the account asking if I know who this is, I told her I had no idea who that is, we tried to report the account, which didn’t work - we later reached out to him to ask him to remove it, I created an account specifically for that, I didn’t want to be on Twitter but he completely ignored us, we tried to get people to mass report the account throughout the years in hopes that it’ll be taken down, that didn’t work.
Emotionally, when it first started, it didn’t quite bother me, because I thought it’d just stop eventually, until it got out of hand as the account grew, it started affecting my work, photoshoots, etc, the first thing they ask is “are you Chris excel” that started taking away from my authenticity that I’ve been trying to stand on, and being bullied online because it was when I realised that it’s gotten out of hand.
How did the cyberbullying you experienced impact your mental health and career?
A couple of weeks ago, before the podcast interview was released, a campaign manager reached out to me for a campaign, and then the next day they showed me the ‘Chris Excel’ account to confirm if it was me, I explained to them that it isn’t me, shortly after that they decided to decline me for the campaign, obviously because of the account, which was truly devastating.
I know people on Twitter argued that it’s normal for people to use “celebrity” images as profile pictures, but for me it’s different, I’m not a celebrity, so it’s easier for people to assume that it’s me behind the account, so I think that’s what people are finding hard to understand.
How did you navigate the legal process of getting the account removed? What were the challenges you faced in pursuing legal action?
I don’t want to go into detail about that, but at this point, it is definitely a step we are looking to take.
Do you think there should be stricter laws or consequences for cyberbullying? What changes would you like to see in the way that social media platforms and law enforcement address online harassment and identity theft?
I think that Twitter’s biggest mistake right now is allowing anyone to be verified, people like Chris can get away with a lot, so I think going forward, Social Media should have stricter control and regulations surrounding this.
People have blamed me, saying that I posted the picture so I’m at fault, but a more in-depth verification process should be done in terms of images.
How do you balance being a public figure and maintaining your privacy, particularly in light of the challenges you've faced with the Chris Excel account? How do you decide what to share with your followers and what to keep private?
I think for me, that’s one of my biggest challenges, I’m not really bothered by that, I post what I want, family, and partner, and I don’t think about the “repercussions”. If it brings me joy to share my experiences at that moment in time, I do it, it’s social media, for me to enjoy, I don’t want to ever feel like I’m limited in enjoying my social media, as long as I’m not offending anyone I should be allowed to post what I want and enjoy it, anyone should
How can brands and companies better support influencers who experience cyberbullying or identity theft? What steps do you think they should take to protect their partners from these kinds of attacks?
I think that they’ve already done that, they protect themselves by trying not to be affiliated with anyone who doesn’t align with their values as a brand - so if you as an influencer are affiliated with “troll” accounts, they can’t work with you, rightfully so, it’s just very unfortunate in my situation and my position because it isn’t my fault.
The focus should be on how we stop things like this. Brands already do that by protecting themselves.
You’ve talked about the importance of mental health and self-care, what do you do to take care of yourself and maintain a healthy work-life balance?
Yes, so right now, the best decision was to go back home to Swaziland, for a couple of weeks, I needed the support of my family and friends, and I’ve been in touch with my therapist who’s in Joburg, it’s been helpful, talking to somebody helps, they don’t give you a solution but help you understand better.
How do you think the digital creator industry will evolve in the next few years?
Yes, I think everything is going towards digital, brands are more focused on Social Media and we see that with the influencer marketing space, and in terms of what I’ve been through, I’m currently working with a brand for a campaign that addresses cyberbullying, I’m excited about that and I think it is important to work, and it’s important to spread awareness on that.
What are your plans for the future, both personally and professionally?
I’m looking to do my Masters, I’ve got a couple of campaigns lined up, more excited about this one on cyberbullying.
What message would you like to send to those who have supported you through this difficult time?
I would like to thank everyone who has been so supportive, ever since the promo for the podcast came out, it’s been great seeing the support, and I’m grateful for that, I didn’t think I’d get so much support, from other influencers too, to see them step up and repost my videos was amazing, thank you to everyone who offered words of encouragement to go forward and fight, thank you.
Have you thought of going to other platforms to share your story?
My whole thing has been to just ignore until it dies out, I’m trying to move on, I don’t want this to be my story, my whole identity isn’t the Chris Excel account, I just want to go back to who I was before this “defined” me.
The Joburg Post Interview