Doxxing with the devil: Pop stars must ask fan armies to lay down their weapons on social media

From death threats to leaked personal addresses, critics have been the subject of multiple pile-ons by fan armies. Rachel Brodsky thinks artists need to start speaking out more against this toxic culture of abuse

Friday 02 April 2021 07:33 BST
I have supported Taylor Swift in my writing when many other journalists didn’t. But I can’t imagine that she would want her fans telling arts journalists to slit their wrists
I have supported Taylor Swift in my writing when many other journalists didn’t. But I can’t imagine that she would want her fans telling arts journalists to slit their wrists (Getty)

In the third episode of YouTube’s new Demi Lovato documentary, Dancing With the Devil, the singer briefly touches on toxic fan army culture. The Grammy-nominated pop titan, who has more than 55 million Twitter followers, looks back on the night in 2018 when she had a near-fatal overdose, and how dancer, choreographer, and creative director Dani Vitale, who was out with the singer that night, was subsequently accused by Lovato’s fans of being a “bad influence”.

Vitale, who is interviewed for the documentary, looks incredibly nervous to relive the immediate aftermath of her friend’s overdose, telling the producers how she had received “four to five thousand” messages a day from Lovato’s fans, who were “telling me to die and kill myself”.

“It was awful to see what happened to Dani after people thinking she had something to do with that night,” Lovato says in her friend’s defence. “My fans are amazing. They’re very passionate. But they’re a little out of line sometimes. Because they want what’s best for me, but don’t always have all the information.”

This type of acknowledgement from artists, specifically that their fan base has the capacity to harass and doxx (ie, searching for and publishing private or identifying information about someone on the internet, typically with malicious intent), is frustratingly rare.

Last year, when a Pitchfork writer published a mostly positive review of Taylor Swift’s Folklore album, a subset of the singer’s fans unloaded on the writer, calling her names, sending threatening messages pictures of her home, indicating that they knew where she lived.  

In 2019, Ariana Grande fans went after culture writer Roslyn Talusan, who spoke up in defence of journalists when Grande sent out a string of now-deleted tweet calling critics “so lost”, “unfulfilled”, and “purposeless”. Even when Talusan exchanged DMs with Grande, who apologised for her fans’ behaviour, she wouldn’t tell them to back off. “They’re upset and they’re passionate,” Grande mused.

Recently, Refinery29 reported a disturbing trend around Black K-pop fans being targeted for no other reason than being considered “anti”, aka, a person who hates a celebrity or icon, even if they consider themselves to be fans.

Meanwhile, The Independent’s music correspondent, Roisin O’Connor, has personally dealt with her fair share of pile-ons, including rape and death threats from Eminem fans after she criticised the rapper for using a homophobic slur in a track that took aim at Tyler, the Creator. More recently, she was bombarded for weeks by Swifties over her own Folklore review for rating it four stars out of five, which fans complained would bring down the Metacritic average. Again, in a piece ranking One Direction songs where she made a mild criticism of Louis Tomlinson, she was sent images of the singer with knives photoshopped into his hands in DMs on her personal social media accounts.

And then there are moments where artists appear to be actively inviting fans to charge: in 2019, Swift asked her army of fans to get in touch with music industry talent manager Scooter Braun and former label boss Scott Borchetta to “let them know how you feel” about their attempts to keep her from performing her old hits on TV or using them in a forthcoming Netflix documentary. This prompted some fans to doxx the two men, publishing what appeared to be Braun and Borchetta’s private contact information on Twitter.

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Back in 2019, “Truth Hurts” singer Lizzo apologised for tweeting out identifying information of a Postmates employee when she thought her food delivery had been stolen. “I apologise for putting that girl on blast,” she later backtracked. “I understand I have a large following and that there were so many variables that could’ve put her in danger. Imma really be more responsible with my use of social media and check my petty and my pride at the door.”

“Doxxing is an extremely serious matter because there’s no telling what a ‘passionate’ anonymous fanbase might do with those phone numbers and addresses once they’ve been exposed,” wrote The Verge at the time. “And there’s no putting them back in the bottle once they’re on the internet.”

Then there is the case of Lana Del Rey, who, in 2019, took issue with a deep-diving NPR essay around the album Norman F***ing Rockwell! by pop critic Ann Powers.

Angered by a few key phrases in the piece, which termed some of Del Rey’s lyrics as “uncooked” and outlined Del Rey’s artist “persona” as “a bad girl to whom bad things are done”, Del Rey retaliated on Twitter, tagging Powers, and writing: “I don’t even relate to one observation you made about the music. There’s nothing uncooked about me. To write about me is nothing like it is to be with me. Never had a persona. Never needed one. Never will.”

Fans, unfortunately, took this as encouragement to launch a series of endless verbal attacks against Powers, who, unlike Del Rey, has no “team” or “entourage” in place protecting her from the abuse.

For her part, Powers, who is one of the most well-known and respected music journalists in today’s media ecosystem, told the Los Angeles Times: “It is a critic’s responsibility to be thoughtful and honest to herself in responding to artists’ work, and an artist’s prerogative to disagree with that response. I respect Lana Del Rey and hope that her music continues to receive the passionate appreciation it has received for years.”

Circling back to Swift’s fans, I’ve also dealt with hideous online attacks from her base. While watching the Grammys a few weeks back, I was struck by a comment in the singer’s acceptance speech, directly thanking the Recording Academy for her Album of the Year award (“We’ll never forget that you did this for us”). To most, the thank you would seem totally innocuous. But to me, someone who has worked for the Recording Academy and has some insight into its inner workings, that comment radiated political, tit-for-tat energy, like one mafia boss speaking to another. So, as most entertainment journalists whose job it is to watch and comment on award shows, I commented on Swift’s speech via Twitter. The next day, my mentions and DMs were exploding with comments about how I had no life, I should be fired, I should slit my wrists – you get the idea. Fans even found their way onto my personal Instagram to leave angry comments on my wedding photos.

The greatest irony? I adore Taylor Swift and her music. I want only good things for her. I have supported her in my writing when many other journalists didn’t. But I can’t imagine that she would want her fans telling arts journalists to slit their wrists. “This is silly,” I kept telling myself. Still, later that night, I collapsed into bed, exhausted, emotionally drained and frightened to look at my phone.

Sometimes, of course, fan armies inspire incredible change. Take the ongoing #FreeBritney movement, which has inspired US lawmakers to take a second look at conservatorship law. Or how about when K-pop fans utilised TikTok to sink a Trump rally? More often, however, fan armies, especially when indirectly encouraged, can trigger brutal waves of online hate and pose real danger to writers – or anyone – who is seen as a threat.

Think about this for a minute, too: Del Rey has just under 10 million Twitter followers, and Lovato has about 55 million. Swift has more than 88 million Twitter followers. No amount of bullying or doxxing is OK, but can you imagine the difference in scale of attacks, per artist?

It took fans bullying a close (and wrongly accused) friend of Lovato’s for the singer to acknowledge this trend. It would be nice, going forward, for more musicians – and all public figures – to actively discourage abuse in their own communities.

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