The militant fandom of the “Beyhive” has nothing on #WeAreCorbyn

Online attacks from superfans of pop stars have become the norm – now the same is true in the political sphere.

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As criticism goes, freelance writer Wanna Thompson’s tweet about the American singer Nicki Minaj was mild stuff: “You know how dope it would be if Nicki put out mature content? No silly shit. Just reflecting on past relationships, being a boss, hardships, etc. She’s touching 40 soon, a new direction is needed.” As a private individual with a relatively small Twitter following, Thompson could have fairly expected to have her commentary pass without much notice.

Not once the “Barbz” found it, though. Minaj, like any celebrity of note, has her own personal online army. Katy Perry has KatyCats, Beyoncé has the Beyhive, Justin Bieber has Beliebers, Taylor Swift has Swifties and Nicki Minaj has Barbz: . Once the Barbz saw that their queen had been disrespected, they sent thousands of messages targeting Thompson’s appearance, her presumed jealousy, her daughter. “You are too toxic for the world and your baby,” went one email to Thompson, which concluded: “KILL YOURSELF HOE!!!”

Thompson was left traumatised and distraught by her encounter with the “stans” – a generic term for extreme fans, which comes from Eminem’s 2000 single “Stan”. The song narrates Stan’s escalating obsession with Eminem. He writes fan letters, but he doesn’t hear back, and so worship turns to rancour, and the rancour is turned on Stan’s own pregnant girlfriend. At the climax of the song, he murders her (and, less upsettingly, kills himself) by locking her in his car boot and driving off a bridge, in imitation of one of Eminem’s earlier tracks.

In the Eminem song, it’s obvious that being Stan is nothing to aspire to. When Eminem raps the final verse, he has some sensible advice for his fan, albeit too late: get some counselling, treat your girlfriend better and relax. “I just don’t want you to do that crazy shit,” he says, before he puts the pieces together and realises that the Stan he’s just heard about in a news story is the same Stan he is addressing now. Yet two decades later, people who call themselves stans or talk about “stanning for” something demonstrate that the patina of irony has worn off. They really do some crazy shit. They’re not limited to pop culture, either. You can stan for a diet or an exercise regime (I’m just saying, from personal experience, don’t prod the CrossFitters), or even a minor academic with a YouTube channel. The power of Canadian psychology professor and hero to the incels (“involuntary celibates”) Jordan Peterson isn’t in his homilies on tidying up, but in the number of young men who defend him against the tiniest slight.

And now the political sphere is driven, essentially, by fandoms. How else to describe Donald Trump’s base? They have their merchandise and their hashtags – red hats and #MAGA (Make America Great Again). They have their adamantium commitment to defending their hero. And when the Trump fandom swarms, the Barbz have got nothing on them: witness the way tech writer Sarah Jeong’s past internet history was combed for gaffes and sarcastic tweets after she was appointed to the New York Times’s editorial board this month.

On Twitter, the EU referendum is refought daily in a proxy war between #FBPE (follow back, pro EU) and #LeaveEU; two groups that organise their identity around their opposition to each other. Because what is a fandom without beef? How do you even know you’re a KatyCat if you don’t have Swifties to feud with?

In British politics, though, there’s only one online fandom that really counts, and that’s the Jeremy Corbyn fandom. It’s perhaps not big enough to launch an arena tour, as the weak armpit fart of Jezfest showed, but it’s a fandom all the same. Enemies are identified and picked off without mercy. BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg is so obsessively targeted that alt-left site the Canary contains more than 30 hit pieces on her. In response to Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis, Corbyn stans devised – of course – a hashtag: #WeAreCorbyn. (On the less collectivist far right, Tommy Robinson stans went with #IAmTommy to show their commitment to their beleaguered hero.)

This isn’t about policy, any more than the maenad-like descent of the Barbz on Thompson was about a measured assessment of Minaj’s future direction as an artist. This is about personality: the famous personality that the stans have devoted themselves to, and the identity stans derive from that devotion. If you know who you like, you know who you are. One of the left-wing jabs at Tony Blair used to be that he was turning Labour into a cult of personality, but I don’t remember being able to buy an “Oh, Tony Blair!” scarf at the time.

When someone describes themselves as a socialist now, it’s 50-50 whether they mean they’re committed to public ownership, or if they’re just using it to define themselves as a “person who really likes Corbyn”. Such fandom is a powerful weapon. If you gather enough people behind you with enough commitment, of course your opponents will think twice before opening their mouths to criticise or even question you. The Barbz were correct to intuit that their queen wanted Thompson “dragged”: it turned out that Minaj had sent Thompson abusive direct messages.

But while fandoms are good at taking hints on who to hunt down, they’re difficult to control. Eminem’s Stan gets really frightening when he feels that his love for his idol isn’t being correctly acknowledged or appreciated. If someone loves you enough to truly stan for you, eventually they’ll give more than you can repay, and in some cases at least, worship will turn to hate. Corbyn is a politician for the fandom age, and the trouble with fandoms is that in the end, you don’t lead them: they own you. 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise and fall of Islamic State