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How Fandom Turns Toxic

We can no longer ignore "cancer cells," trolls, or arrogant advocates.

Key points

  • There is increasing recognition of toxic factions in fandom that can reduce the mental health benefits of being a fan.
  • Coming together to celebrate a shared passion brings a sense of cohesion, but so can banding together against something.
  • Fan communities exist on more public platforms than in the past, with fans who love (and hate) very different things.
  • Minimizing exposure to toxicity can make fandom a more positive experience and a place to feel a sense of belonging.
Alberto Bigoni/Upsplash
Source: Alberto Bigoni/Upsplash

An article a few weeks ago in Salon was ominously titled “Let’s all stop ignoring The Fandom Menace. It’s real, and it’s winning.” The article contends that toxic factions have become a built-in component of fandom that serves a “darker side” of human nature. Examples of this toxicity are fans who engage in behaviors like "review bombing" (organizing to leave scathing reviews on IMDb to ruin the reputation and buzz around a film or series, as they did recently to Disney Plus’s Ms. Marvel) or coordinated social media attacks against both creators and fellow fans who don’t fit with their view of the media.

The article also points out that fans who are united in their hatred of something increasingly cluster together on platforms like Facebook, Reddit, or YouTube, organizing their members to carry out attacks. The author of that article finds underlying racism and misogyny in many of these attacks and provocatively calls these groups “cancer cells in an amorphous hate blob.” There have been hate-fueled attacks, such as on Star Wars actors Kelly Marie Tran and John Boyega, the notorious “Gamergate” (a coordinated attack against mostly female fans), and most recently against Obi-Wan Kenobi star Moses Ingram and Percy Jackson actress Leah Jeffries were targeted.

In contrast, I’ve written frequently about the benefits of fandom—for mental health, exploring one's identity, discovering creativity, and taking a much-needed break from the stresses of everyday life. Being part of a group of fans united in their love of something brings a sense of belongingness and acceptance that’s good for us. But every media franchise seems to have a subset of fans who either threaten content creators in an attempt to impact the story's direction or attack other fans who interpret the story differently. This can sometimes make fandom feel more like a minefield than a safe space for self-expression and celebration.

Fandom Changes: The How and the Where

At the same time that Salon published the "Fandom Menace" article, a viral tweet struck a chord with many fans. Twitter user @Atriedes analyzed changes in fandom over the past decade that have contributed to the increased toxicity, using the term "evangelists" to describe fans whose interactions within a fan community are mostly to, as they put it, pontificate.

Historically, creating fanworks such as fanfiction, fanart or videos was the predominant way of gaining visibility and popularity within a fandom. Now, finding a platform on which to pontificate works equally well. Fanworks often transformed the canon material in some way, and were at times critical, but much of the interaction between fans around fanworks was celebratory—people came together to gush about the things they loved. If the goal is to pontificate, fandom becomes less about celebration and more about influence.

One explanation for this change is the platforms on which fan communities form. Early internet communities were largely private, moderated spaces, such as online mailing lists or blogging platforms like LiveJournal. Over the past decade, fandoms have migrated to more public platforms, like Twitter and TikTok, which means that fan culture became easily accessible to a wide range of people. Instead of clustering into mostly obscure groups of people who all were fans of a specific thing, fans of all sorts of today interact openly and publicly. With fandom more heterogeneous than ever, fans are no longer interacting with mostly like-minded people. Creators are also accessible through social media, facilitating personal attacks against individual actors, writers, and directors.

Fandom has gone mainstream. That is both a positive, in the sense that you can shout your love of Star Wars from the rooftops more comfortably, and not so positive, because every time you shout a lot of people who passionately disagree with you are going to hear you. And sometimes let you know just how wrong you are.

Banding Together for Love or Hate

The term evangelist in that viral tweet seemed fitting to many fans, perhaps because there can be an almost religious zeal in going after people who don’t like the exact same thing in the exact same way. While coming together to share a passion for something can bring a sense of group cohesion, so can banding together over a mutual hatred. It can be a heady feeling to be a follower in such groups, determined to right the perceived wrongs of the internet. Unfortunately, it often results in attacks against other fans who are trying to find a sense of belonging. Fandom can become more about engaging in attacks on what you don’t like than celebrating what you do.

Of course, fandoms are first and foremost groups, and that means that basic group dynamics apply. There are in-groups and out-groups, with cohesion increased by pathologizing anyone not in your particular in-group, even if those people are also fans. There have always been disagreements and policing in fandom. The so-called “ship wars” have been going on forever, with some fans preferring Character A and Character B together romantically and others insisting it has to be Character A with Character C. The difference seems to be in the disdain leveled at the people “doing it wrong,” with accusations of moral failing instead of shaking one's head at others’ mystifying but harmless preferences. The public, unmoderated nature of the platforms in use today makes the consequences for people who are targeted more damaging, with ruined reputations and even “doxxing,” making fans’ personal information public.

It has been rightly pointed out that not all criticism is a bad thing, and that fandoms, as communities, should not be immune to valid critique. There is racism and misogyny and every other societal problem in fandoms and fan creations, and not all criticism makes a fan an “anti” (and thus easier to dismiss). On the other hand, for individuals who have felt marginalized and are looking for a supportive community, being attacked for having a different character preference can be detrimental to mental health instead of beneficial. Fandom is not always a refuge for people looking to belong.

Avoiding the Toxicity

If you find yourself caught up in toxicity or the target of intra-fandom attacks, disengaging can be the best course of action for your mental health. When someone is engaging with you just to attack, they are unlikely to want to debate in good faith, so engaging can be both frustrating and can encourage more “piling on.” Twitter recently debuted a new feature, which allows users to leave a conversation they no longer want to be in. This makes it easier to disengage from that platform.

If the wild west of public fandoms leave you feeling bad more often than good, try a more curated fan community. There are fan groups on platforms such as Discord that are more moderated, and moderators will often shut down attacks before they can do too much damage. Some subreddits function the same way, and most platforms allow for the creation of groups that are not open to the public. Try a group out and don’t be afraid to leave if it doesn’t meet your needs.

Fandom should be a community that provides mental health benefits, from a sense of belonging to a place to explore your identity. If it feels like just the opposite, self-care comes first. Just as you pick a place to live that is safe and comfortable and feels like home, a fan community should provide those same warm feelings.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Sergey Peterman/Shutterstock


Dunlap, K & Wolf, C. (2010). Fans behaving badly: Anime metafandom, brutal criticism, and the intellectual fan. Mechademia, 5, 267-283.

Wakefield, K.L. & Wann, D. L. (2006). An examination of dysfunctional sport fans: Method of classification and relationships with problem behaviors. Journal of Leisure Research, 38, 168-186.

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