Stan Twitter: toxic fans are ‘encouraged’ by artists - but music stars need to condemn, not enable, the angry online mobs that harass critics and minorities
Ethan first knew something was wrong when fans of a popular rapper told him to choke on the chips he tweeted about.
Ethan, who asked to remain anonymous and is referred to here by a pseudonym, had written in an article on a hip-hop website that the rapper should take a year off in lieu of producing a new album. What started as a “weird” reply to a single tweet, Ethan said, turned into a harassment campaign.
He received emails and direct messages containing homophobic language, memes edited to show the artist holding a gun, and comments telling him to keep his mouth shut. On Instagram, fans directed one another to harass him on Twitter. Eventually, they posted his family’s home address.
Stopgap measures like changing his Instagram username weren’t enough to stymie the flow of hate. Fans found his new handle by reverse image searching a photo he posted, Ethan suspected. Twitter didn’t process reports quickly enough. Eventually, the harassment died down only after he set his Twitter account to private and the publication removed his byline from the article.
For many journalists like Ethan, who write about pop stars, harassment from stans – a term derived from an Eminem lyric that describes extremely dedicated fans, in the 2000 song of the same name – is almost a rite of passage. Even a glowing review can provoke a flurry of harassment ranging from angry comments in a writer’s Twitter mentions to leaked personal information.
Stan Twitter is capable of extreme good: it can serve as a tight-knit community, help elevate artists, and raise money for charitable causes. But it’s also capable of extreme harm.
The harassment can be “overwhelming, frustrating and unsurprising”
Reports of harassment explicitly attached to “stan Twitter” date back to at least 2016, when Affinity Magazine reported on how stan Twitter had turned into a “playground for bullies”.
When waged against members of the media, these harassment campaigns are typically sparked by criticism or coverage that’s perceived as inaccurate or unjust.
Emma A Jane, an associate professor at the University of New South Wales Sydney, said that some fandom members who were motivated to defend their idols “seem to take it very personally when media commentators engage in even mild critique”.
Fans are also swift to pile onto writers’ tweets. In April 2019, the journalist Roslyn Talusan, a Filipino-Canadian writer and anti-rape activist, responded to a tweet Ariana Grande made dismissing people who worked at “blogs” by calling Grande a “spoiled white girl from boca” (Grande was born in Boca Raton, Florida). The tweet drew racist and misogynistic harassment from Grande’s fans, BuzzFeed News reported.
Talusan said the experience was “overwhelming, frustrating and unsurprising”. It’s continued to follow her in the years since, both on social media and reputationally, she said. Grande’s fans continue to monitor Talusan’s tweets, she said, replying and quote tweeting posts, particularly those that reference Grande, with references to the incident.
Fans themselves even face endemic harassment
Fans themselves sometimes face similar treatment should they become critical of stars or their actions. Many fans who become targets of harassment are black or members of other marginalised communities.
“Different aspects of our identities – and the identities of the people harassing us – tell what the harassment we get looks like and how long people feel like they get to keep harassing us,” said Stitch, a Teen Vogue fandom columnist who created Stitch’s Media Mix.
Tiwa Omolade, the founder of the pop culture blog South Sonder, reported for Refinery29 on the phenomenon of black K-pop fans – particularly women – facing harassment campaigns, including violent threats and doxxing at the hands of other fans.
Much anti-black harassment in K-pop fandom follows a familiar cycle, according Michelle Cho, a professor of East Asian popular culture at the University of Toronto: black fans raise concerns about something an idol has done that’s perceived as racist, and other fans become defensive and angry, harassing those who levied criticisms.
A similar scenario recently played out on Weverse, a social app where fans and artists can interact, after a member of the K-pop group Enhypen was accused of saying the N-word in a video, BuzzFeed News reported. When fans began to discuss the incident, it led to racist abuse toward black members of the fandom.
Stan Twitter harassment appears to be growing worse
Stitch said they’d witnessed fandom-driven harassment campaigns grow worse over the past two decades, adding that access to people online via social media has exacerbated the issue.
Pivotal events across the past decade have shaped online harassment, including Gamergate, a trend of virulent harassment toward several women in the gaming world, and a slate of conspiracy theories about game developers and journalists that began in 2014 and has had repercussions across the decade.
“Gamergate greatly increased public perception about the prevalence and true threat and impact of organised online harassment campaigns,” said Jane. “I think it has also inspired online haters to engage in more coordinated, wide-ranging and vicious attacks.”
That coordination plays out on stan Twitter as well. As Stitch reported for Polygon earlier this year, “report accounts” are a common stan Twitter phenomenon, wherein accounts exist for the sole purpose of directing fans to mass-report users who are critical of the artists they love (in an effort to get them banned), tag journalists’ editors, and contact their professional acquaintances.
Artists themselves sometimes become involved in this harassment
When it comes to artists, there’s not a consensus on how they should handle harassment that their fans inflict on others.
Platforms also bear responsibility for fandom-based harassment campaigns. While Twitter has rolled out a slew of features over the years such as prompting users to reconsider potentially offensive tweets and flagging “sensitive content”, it hasn’t succeeded in solving the problem.
Bertha Chin, a senior lecturer in social media and communication at the Swinburne University of Technology in Sarawak, Malaysia, said that for some artists the decision of whether to weigh in was complicated by their business dealings.
In 2019, Lana Del Rey responded to an NPR critic’s take on her by replying directly to the writer on Twitter. The singer’s tweet ended up driving harassment to the critic and littering the person’s mentions with vitriol, the Los Angeles Times reported.
In a different 2018 case, a critic who posted a tweet about Minaj’s artistic direction received harassment from the rapper’s fan base (known as Barbz) and messages from Minaj herself, The New York Times reported, calling her “ugly” and “jealous”. When the critic publicised the messages, it further galvanised Minaj’s fans.
While facing harassment from Grande’s fans in 2019, Talusan shared direct messages indicating that when she asked Grande to intercede, Grande apologised but refused, saying they were “reacting with similar energy to what they’ve read”.
“Artists are resistant to calling out the violence of their fans because that violence ultimately benefits them,” said Talusan. “What’s important to these artists isn’t so much equality or social justice, but money and public image and ego.”
- Ariana Grande fans bombarded a Filipino-Canadian writer with racist and misogynistic abuse on Twitter – but the victim claims the singer ignored her pleas to intervene
- Taylor Swift followers doxxed a Pitchfork reviewer – after Folklore scored an 8/10 review – and Lana Del Rey called out an NPR critic directly, prompting netizens to do the same