Why angry ‘anti-fans’ turn on the influencers they once loved | Sarah Manavis

We hear a lot these days about young people’s infatuation with influencers – obsessive followers who treat social media stars like world-class musicians or decorated actors, as though posting sponsored content for a living conveyed dazzling talent. There are fans who hang on their every word, who travel far and wide to attend meet-and-greets with someone known for dance routines or kooky videos, who come out in the tens of thousands to buy up branded products, and who excitedly repost influencer pregnancy or engagement announcements as though they were about their closest friends.

But we almost never hear about an arguably more dedicated group: their anti-fans. These are the people who unite around a shared hatred of particular social media stars. They post on sites such as Tattle Life, Guru Gossip and Reddit’s Blogsnark, which host many forums where anti-fans post biting criticism of influencers’ appearance, weight and lifestyle, calling them bad mothers or suggesting their partners have cheated. This rampant cruelty occasionally slips into territory that is actively dangerous, with posters doxing influencers and their families through chillingly crafty sleuthing.

Who are the people posting on these forums? A quick survey suggests the anti-fans vary in age: some mention being school age; others mention having adult children (most appear to be women, but this can’t be said with certainty). What they all have in common is a history of once loving the influencers they now appear to hate. A typical refrain you’ll see goes something like: “I used to live for her posts, but now she’s boring/ out of touch/ ungrateful to her fans.” This is often followed by a scathing comment on the influencer’s work ethic or parenting style, or speculation about whether they have had liposuction.

Their motivations are difficult to identify. Why spend so much time and energy writing about a person who bores you or simply drives you nuts? A recent study from researchers at Cardiff University provides some answers. Researchers sifted through 297 threads, each with about 1,000 posts, across two anti-fan forums. Their findings were startling: fans seemed to have turned on influencers precisely because of the closeness they once felt. In their posts, anti-fans spoke of feeling “neglected” and “excluded” from influencers’ lives after those influencers chose to increase privacy measures, or stopped responding to comments.

In some cases, these anti-fans would pore over the lives of influencers they felt had withdrawn from their followers, speculating about what might have happened behind closed doors and filling in what the researchers called “narrative gaps” with information they had triangulated or guessed. Many anti-fans even felt exploited by their favourite influencers – as if their dedication and adoration were being milked for brand deals, or used to fund an increasingly flashy lifestyle.

These findings align with growing research on the power of relationships between celebrities and their online audience. These relationships are inherently parasocial, where fans feel an intimate connection with someone they don’t actually know. Research shows that positive parasocial connections can be used to a celebrity’s advantage to build highly devoted followings. Such devotion ultimately obscures the true nature of these relationships, which provide a source of attention and income for celebrities or influencers who feign friendships with their followers. In one 2020 study, psychologists found that some followers can be totally blind to the level of emotional attachment they have formed with an influencer, wholly unaware of the intensity of their bond with a stranger.

Underpinning many of the posts on anti-fan sites is a stark delusion. The fans were never at any point “friends” with the influencer in question. Nor did they have a close relationship from which they could be subsequently excluded. Influencers are right to feel hurt or even scared when fans lash out against their reasonable desire for privacy. But the anger of these anti-fans is a product of the transactional dynamic that is at the heart of every influencer’s relationship with their audience. Influencers form what appears to be a meaningful bond with their followers, and that bond leads to engagement, which leads to money. In each video they upload, and in many of the captions they write, most successful influencers will actively seek to intensify this mindset among their audience, knowing this is the way to keep them interested for the long haul (even, at times, stoking fan theories to encourage obsessive attention). They profess to be blameless victims of a dynamic that is almost entirely of their own making.

The sticky truth is that these parasocial relationships are, as anti-fans have noted, lucrative when cultivated successfully. They create a complex emotional grey area we’re only really just beginning to unpack. The negative ramifications of this feigned intimacy are revealing themselves to be much more difficult for people to negotiate than we may have assumed. But we should also understand that influencers know (and have known) the downsides of fuelling this delusion. It may be a double-edged sword, but it would be naive to think that feigning this intimacy wasn’t intentionally – or indeed, overwhelmingly – advantageous.

  • Sarah Manavis is an American writer covering technology, culture, and society

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