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Censorship of comments on influencers’ social media leads to significant rise in anti-fan communities

15 June 2023

A young woman vlogging herself doing makeup.

Social media influencers who censor negative comments risk losing followers to anti-fan communities as they attempt to “re-establish lost intimacies”, research from Cardiff University shows.

Academics at Cardiff Business School spent five years studying beauty and lifestyle social media influencers, as well as relevant online gossip forums, where anti-fan communities have sprung up.

Social media influencers – ordinary consumers who rise to fame by cultivating an online following on social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok – are rapidly outpacing traditional celebrities with regards to consumer attention, trust, and influence.

The team observed that the influencers studied built up a strong and growing fanbase by sharing intimate details of their private lives and engaging directly with followers by replying to comments.

But interactions with followers became less frequent as social media influencers became more popular. While comments on the influencers’ social media content became more positive over time, observations of anti-fan communities indicated this was due to increasing censorship of negative comments.

This, academics argue, had led to some fans becoming disillusioned, with a significant number looking to rebuild these lost intimacies on anti-fan forums.

Social media influencers excel by establishing positive parasocial relationships with their followers– one-sided relationships where individuals feel that they intimately know a media persona. Consequently, many consumers describe perceiving them as friends.

But they can also provoke intense negative reactions. Gossip websites where followers can interact with other anti-fans, such as GOMI (‘Get Off My Internets’), Guru Gossip, You Talk Trash, Gossip Bakery, Tattle Life and Reddit’s ‘Blogsnark’ are growing in popularity and are highly active.

Lead author Dr Rebecca Mardon, senior lecturer in marketing and strategy, said: “Most participants within these anti-fan communities claim that they were, at one time, ardent fans of the social media influencer they are now equally devoted to critiquing.

“Our analysis reveals that consumers’ engagement in anti-fan communities is often prompted by the erosion of the intimacies experienced when the influencer was less well-known, as well as a feeling they are being exploited for commercial gain.

“But rather than disengaging from the now disliked or hated influencer by unfollowing their social media channels, these consumers choose instead to participate in anti-fan communities dedicated to critiquing the influencer. This provides them with a continuation of their parasocial relationship with the influencer, albeit a negative one, and a way of trying to re-establish those intimacies they feel they have lost.”

Researchers found that members of anti-fan communities sought to rebuild intimacies in a number of ways. This included adopting a detective mentality, seeking out ‘clues’ and ‘evidence’ in the influencer’s online content to develop fan theories relating to aspects of their lives that they attempt to keep private.

Dr Mardon added: “The groups collectively perpetuated the belief that the influencer was reading posts on these forums, and acting on their recommendations, enabling them to continue feeling seen and acknowledged.

“It’s clear that while these interactions are taking place in online spaces, they are no less complex than ‘real-life’ relationships. Social media influencers must therefore carefully navigate these relationships, finding ways to maintain the intimacies developed within their communities while balancing their growing commercial interests.”

When parasocial relationships turn sour: Social media influencers, eroded and exploitative intimacies, and anti-fan communities, is published in the Journal of Marketing Management.

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