Last week, a fan of the peppy pop singer Ariana Grande sent a tweet to her idol that came dangerously close to torpedoing her favourite celebrity’s career. No doubt assuming that Grande would have better things to do than spend all day scanning her mentions, the Twitter user called Shannon claimed - incorrectly - that Grande had been sued for using a song by fellow pop star Frank Ocean on her tour.
But the 26-year-old multi-platinum selling pop star did see it, and immediately tweeted a response to her 64.7 million followers that asked her to “please stop making s___ up every time I log off for a few hours and u get bored”. Before long, Grande was being accused of unnecessary rudeness towards an innocent fan, and the hashtag #arianagrandeisoverparty began to trend; it seemed the star was being “cancelled”.
But things got much worse for Shannon. Suddenly she faced the ire of thousands of Grande’s most devoted supporters. A fan interaction had gone horribly wrong, and someone trying to get the attention of their idol ended up dealing with a deluge of hate. She went into hiding, locking her account and apologising profusely to try and stop the baying crowds.
“Ariana Grande’s response to her fan calling her out suggests that she regularly receives similar comments, which cannot have a positive effect on her mental health,” explains Ben Jeffries of Influencer, an influencer management company which represents many stars of social media. “More must be done to protect everyone online, but that must also include celebrities and influencers."
It’s not the first time a celebrity has set their digital dogs on an unprepossessing stranger. Some celebrities - Piers Morgan springs to mind - revel in calling out their critics publicly on social media, quote-tweeting them so people can chip in with their own responses.
Ed Sheeran has also previously hit out at people who claimed he left Twitter to avoid backlash to him appearing in Game of Thrones, and JK Rowling has the good grace to hide the identities of those who she replied to on Twitter. Ricky Gervais, meanwhile, regularly takes on all comers publicly; in 2014, a writer received death threats after tweeting criticism of Gervais’s latest film. The disparity of power between both parties makes it a massive mismatch.
What is different is that those who engage with Gervais, Morgan and Rowling know they’re likely to be made fun of – it’s like baiting a bear. With Grande, the fan was made the target of thousands by accident. Grande was lambasted for lashing out at a fan – particularly given many of her most ardent supporters then attacked Shannon for daring to claim that Grande was in the wrong. Like a schoolyard tiff, things escalated out of control, supercharged by the bitchy nature of gossip online.
Grande swiftly apologised, but the pop singer’s defenders and opponents continued sparring over whether she was right to be so blunt with a stranger. Wherever the moral compass points, one thing is certain: no one wins on social media.
In a pre-social media era, rumours and innuendo would flourish about a celebrity, but would never gather enough steam that the celebrity would feel the need to immediately respond. However, thanks to social media a half-truth can spread halfway around the world in minutes, and celebrities feel more accountable to their fans than ever. “Social media makes it easier to connect with superstars and more so signifies a loss of control on the side of the star,” says Annelot Prins, who is researching celebrity feminism in pop music at the Freie Universitat in Berlin. “If critiques gain momentum they might destroy you.”
“While I’m always hesitant to say that social media is new and transformative, because it’s often an extension of things we had before, platforms like Twitter really do open up new terrain for feelings of intimacy and connection between fans and celebrities,” says Ysabel Gerrard, lecturer in digital media and society at the University of Sheffield. “But they also open up new and potentially very damaging risks.”
Celebrities therefore need to walk on eggshells when making any kind of pronouncements on Twitter, for fear their comments get misconstrued and innocent, if misguided, people become collateral damage.
“Celebrities need to be careful in responding to fans as fans reconstruct, negotiate, or resist dominant celebrity messages in their own social contexts as in the case of rumours, gossip and scandal,” says Dr Samita Nandy, director of the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies, an international group of academics looking at celebrities.
We’ve seen the rise of often-confected “drama”, whether supposed arguments between YouTubers that lead to boxing matches, completely fictional relationships leading to marriage or over-egged animosity between two celebrities, such as Taylor Swift and Katy Perry’s years-long dispute that ended with the two dressing up as fast food items for Swift’s latest music video. All of it is lapped up – and encouraged – by highly protective and partisan young fans on social media.
“Social media allows you to get very, very invested in these fandoms since it is so easy to connect to the fan communities,” explains Prins.
Fans feel much more of a connection with their idols nowadays than before thanks to social media, which brings them a more immediate, personal connection that they’d ever have had with the Hollywood celebrities of old. “A celebrity's authenticity is always in question, and their fans are more likely to reach out to them for visibility in their parasocial relationship,” explains Nandy.
The “parasocial relationship” is a term coined in the 1950s for the strength of feeling that TV viewers had for nightly news anchors or soap stars, who were welcomed into living rooms across the world every night and who became more like an old friend than a remove celebrity. When amplified by the immediacy of mobile phones, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, a celebrity can often seem like a friend – with all the falling outs and rivalries that ensue. “On social media, the visibility of a celebrity's will to act or the perception of it is key,” says Nandy.
“Accessibility changed with prolific use of social media such as Twitter whereas there was much gatekeeping in the past - there was a barrier to direct communication with celebrities due in inaccessibility of their agents, managers and publicists,” she adds. “While they still play a role, celebrities have much control in negotiating their authenticity using their social media platforms.”
At the same time, fans feel ownership over their favourites, and any misstep can be fatal if not quickly rectified. “There is no go-to manual” for how to interact with your fans on social media, says Prins. “Celebrities seem to take very different approaches to social media. Beyoncé, for example, barely engages, while Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift are both deeply invested in engaging with fans. They often retweet, reblog or repost statements by fans on Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr.”
But the issue works both ways. Celebrities need to be aware not only of the power of their fans, and their ability to “cancel” their existence through collective action, but also the power their wield as a social media presence, and the ferocity with which some of their fans are willing to defend them. Accidentally turning the collective ire of your audience onto someone who has misjudged the boundaries between fandom and friendship can ruin lives.
Nonetheless, there is still a hierarchy in fandom. Though the person who originally raised the ire of Grande has since locked her account – her final public pronouncement being “she hates me” – there are indications she had a large following on Twitter. “A large following might point to ‘elite fandom’ status, which means a fan who is also followed by many other fans,” says Prins. “These people are much more likely to get a response than a fan account with less than 1,000 followers.”
Grande managed to smooth over the conflict with her fan, and theoretically stop the storm. “Naw I love you,” she responded. “Just exhausting seeing people talk. Love u to the moon n back.” And just like that, order was restored.