Behind Enemy Lines: Exploring The Toxic Side Of Fandoms

14 June 2019 | 8:54 am | Maxim Boon

The increased power and prevalence of social media has taken mob mentality global. Maxim Boon looks at different ways toxic fandoms have mushroomed online.

Fandom can toe a fine line. On the one hand, it can be a glorious expression of admiration and joy: getting a Pickle Rick tattoo; being able to recite word for word the entire script of Withnail And I; devoting hours to learning fluent Klingon; owning every item of merch from T-shirts to coffee mugs to straight-to-DVD movies featuring Grumpy Cat (RIP). But that pure-hearted enthusiasm can all too easily reach a tipping point and curdle into a big steaming pile of unhealthy obsession. And as has predictably proven the case all too often in the digital age, social media has enabled this toxic fandom to wreak uncontrollable levels of damage.

In fact, it seems to be the fate of anything that reaches a critical mass of popularity, through the sheer numbers of aficionados engaging with it, that an element of toxicity will find a foothold. 

In decades past, before digital interfaces severed our face-to-face humanity from our opinions, the ardent commitment of superfans might have manifested itself as heated debate among kindred enthusiasts. In fact, sharing the nerd-tastic scale of their fandom in everyday life would have largely been met by ridicule or judgement, making even the most hardcore of fans self-conscious about their geekery.  

But social media has since allowed a strange cross-breeding of online behaviours to occur, splicing diehard zeal with red-hot trolling in a dehumanised, detached realm of zero-consequence. Dissenting opinions are all too often met by breathtaking levels of abuse, and can be escalated exponentially as mob mentality emboldens likeminded fans to get stuck in. Ironically, the embarrassment felt by the superfans of old might well have been the X-factor that kept their emotions in check. Online, it seems, those flood gates are wide open.

But not all toxic fandoms were created equal. Several subsets of the phenomena have emerged from this grim sludge of human behaviour, each with its own psychological profile. Here, we’ll take a look at three of the most prevalent forms splurging their way around the internet.

The Biggest Fan

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A perfect storm of entitled superiority, competitiveness and die-hard pedantry combine in superfans who believe their love of [insert pop culture reference of your choice here] is greater and therefore more valid than anyone else’s. This manifests in a possessive, Alpha-level aggression towards any who dare challenge the top wonk’s reign as the biggest, bestest, most committed devotee. Newcomers perceived to be jumping on a bandwagon are also in the firing line, because the biggest fan was into their ultimate passion “before it was cool”. This form of toxic fandom could be best described as broad-spectrum, as it can be found thriving across all manner of genres, art forms, formats and mediums, although true juggernaut franchises – Harry Potter, Star Wars, Star Trek for example – boast the greatest numbers. Investing the hours of dedication needed to cement a truly encyclopaedic knowledge of something doesn’t necessarily make someone this type of toxic fan. Where the toxicity infiltrates tends to be in the degree of possessive entitlement at the heart of this fan culture. This can even extend to the creative talents behind the object of the biggest fan’s true love, going so far as to challenge additions or developments to existing canons, such as the backlash experienced by JK Rowling after revealing Dumbledore was gay. Sorry Potterheads, if it’s said by JK, it’s no jk. Ok?

Reality Trolls

The evolution of reality TV has become something of an arms race, as showrunners have scrambled to find the next scandalising twist to pull in viewers in an increasingly crowded genre. Many reality shows are now discussed in terms of “narratives” with careful editing used to amplify storylines in a way not too dissimilar to a soap opera. And as with any good yarn, there are heroes and there are villains. Positioning a reality star as a baddie makes for great telly, but it’s also the source of this fandom’s toxicity. As producers have gone to greater and greater lengths to manipulate and edit character development, positioning some reality stars as the rankest, most inhuman bullies, it has pegged them as fair game for online retribution, and within the great echo chambers of social media, this can result in truly shocking examples of widespread abuse. Often this is inspired by a misguided sense of vigilante justice, a simple case of bad sorts getting their karmic comeuppance. However, what is often overlooked is the devastating toll this can take on the very real, thinking, feeling people on the receiving end. Some are forced to leave social media, driven into digital hiding by the sheer weight of the hate being directed at them. In other instances, the results have been far graver. The suicides of two former Love Island contestants in the past year, Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon, have been linked to online trolling and the pressures of fame in the reality TV zeitgeist, highlighting the corrosive effect reality celebrity, and the intense fandom it draws, can have on mental health.

The Minions

Sometimes, toxic devotion can be weaponised, both intentionally and by accident, by wayward celebs. This form of fandom is perhaps the most established. Screaming hoards willing to defend their idol at any cost have been around since Elvis and The Beatles. The tools now at their disposal is where the toxicity level has risen in recent years. The slightest perceived slur against a celebrity with this kind of following can provoke a swift and usually wildly disproportionate response via social media. Take for example, the “ratty facial hair” fiasco of 2017, in which Aussie radio host Ash London used less than flattering terms to describe former One Directioner Louis Tomlinson’s attempt at growing a beard. London was subjected to a high-pressure torrent of abuse and threats, demanding apologies for the “disrespect” she had shown the hallowed pop twink. London went to ground, setting her socials to private, and this is where the barrage may have been subdued had it not been for Tomlinson’s own input. Ominously tweeting, “Probs best to stay private for a bit longer love!” along with a middle finger emoji, this was the green light for the Tomlinson faithful to really pile on. And all this, for one off the cuff comment, which is really all it takes to set off this powder keg variety of toxic fan.

This story was originally published in the June issue of The Music. Pick up a copy of it on the street now or head here to read it online.