Cristiano Ronaldo’s ‘South Africa’ gaffe in Saudi Arabia: Why social media trolls should be kinder

Advising Netizens to think before they type, Dubai experts explain how bashing can have a devastating impact on one's mental health


Lamya Tawfik

Published: Thu 5 Jan 2023, 6:21 PM

Last updated: Thu 5 Jan 2023, 6:37 PM

By now, everyone must have already heard about how Cristiano Ronaldo mistakenly said “come to South Africa” instead of “Saudi Arabia” during his grand Al Nassr Club unveiling earlier this week.

If he were an ordinary person, it would have been easy to laugh it off and dismiss it as a slip of the tongue. But he was far from ordinary — he's a superstar, currently the highest-paid footballer, five-time Ballon d'Or winner. Hence, all eyes are on him.

Almost immediately after the gaffe, the Internet went wild with comments, sarcastic jabs, and ridicule. Some Netizens went as far as analysing and dissecting the slip of the tongue.

The cruel bashing that comes with celebrity status could have a devastating impact on an individual's mental health, no matter how invincible a superstar might seem, an expert in Dubai told Khaleej Times. But the thing is, on social media, it is easy to be a troll.

“There are things like anonymity, the apparent consensus in comments, so we feel like we’re just agreeing with everyone else which is not a fair representation of a general consensus on the matter. All these features make it tempting and very easy to be quite cruel and not sympathetic to other people,” said Dr Kirin Hilliar, assistant professor of psychology at Heriot-Watt University Dubai, and psychologist at Open Minds Centre in Barsha Heights.

She said that according to psychology research, it takes three positive comments to balance out every piece of negative criticism a person gets.

“We are affected by people’s harsh words — and so perhaps we should think am I lifting people up rather than pulling people down. Am I treating people the way I want to be treated?” the expert added.


After the pandemic, which has created global trauma, there’s much need for social media users to be consciously spreading more love than hate, according to Aditi Nath, mental health practitioner and cognitive training director.

“A lot of changes happened after the pandemic; we rely a lot more on online interaction. We live in this age, we need to spread the level of love and positivity we spread because this will have a direct impact on our well-being and mental health,” she said.

If human contact becomes digital and that virtual space gets filled with trolls, then people’s entire wellbeing and outlook will become negative as well. “This will lead to a domino effect, and the consequences on the other end will be severe. This will increase the mental health problems in the world,” she explained.


She said trolls act the way they do because of the lack of accountability and the level of anonymity. “If they want to be malicious or disruptive, they can. A lot of trolls want some kind of recognition and power,” added Aditi.

If someone has social anxiety, she said, they will perceive any negative thing that they did to be even worse. They will catastrophise, explained Dr Hilliar.

“If this gets reinforced by negative comments that can be mentally damaging. If you’re self-assured and with no social anxiety, then it will not have an impact. It’s not about a seemingly innocuous comment – it’s the build-up of the millions of comments and articles,” she said.


Dr Hilliar gave a few tips on how to minimise harm on mental health when using social media:

>> Read the articles but not the comments.

>> Limit your social media time to certain periods of time – e.g. 10 minutes.

>> Before you go online think about what you want to do? If you find yourself mindlessly scrolling this increases the likelihood that you will find content that pulls you down than up.

>> Are there certain accounts you like follow for news and are they variant enough?

>> Check in with yourself before commenting: Would I say this to this person’s face? If my mum were to read this, would I be proud of it?

>> When I am interacting online, am I only interacting with negative news? Do I only respond to things that get me angry and outraged? Or am I also taking the time to comment on videos that are clever, artistic? If someone makes a good point, do I say that is a valid argument I learned a lot.

Create more positive interactions

Dr Hilliar said the sense of self-righteousness that one gets from making another person feel less could work in the short term but not in the long term. “All the research suggests for Netizens' own mental health, more positive interaction is beneficial for both parties,” she added.

Celebrities who are particularly polarising tend to push people further into their camps of “like” and “dislike”. “If you like him, you will defend him as much as you can and if you don’t like him then you’ll see this as further evidence that he’s arrogant or doing this for the money. That polarization triggers even more frenzy online the comments, the shares, more clicks for the media,” she said.

There are other psychological explanations for the frenzy: One involves the fact that Ronaldo is seen as being 'superhuman'.

“It’s the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ — when a very successful person finally does something bad, people revel in that. They think: ‘this is going to make you humble and bring you down with the rest of us.’ We seem to like it when seemingly perfect people don’t do well,” she said.

Another psychological factor at play is “the pratfall effect”.

“People will think, well, he’s just like us and they’ll like him more,” explained Dr. Hilliar adding that celebrities whose personas are not ‘well put together’ or that don’t take themselves too seriously don’t get that kind of coverage when they do a gaffe. “His persona is that of a competent person and it’ll benefit him in some ways, but it also sets him up for high levels of ridicule and attention as compared to other celebrities,” she explained.

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