Death Threats, Panic Attacks, And Nightmares: What It’s Like To Be The Target Of Stan Hate
"[It was] everything from 'I hope you get raped' to 'I'm going to murder you' to 'I know where you live' to 'I hope you die'."
On a Tuesday in December 2017, radio host Ash London was about to hit play on a pre-recorded interview with former One Direction star Louis Tomlinson.
There was nothing that even remotely concerned London about the interview — it was a pretty standard chat about Tomlinson’s new music, and she thought it had gone really well. Just before she let it play out, her co-hosts — Ash Williams and Ed Kavalee — piped up.
“Just so we’re clear, because I’m a very visual guy, Ash — he’s the guy with the smaller face with the short brown hair?” Williams queried.
“Kind of, like, ratty facial hair,” London answered quickly, before Kavalee chimed in with a crack about Tomlinson being the “least popular one” of the group.
The entire light-hearted exchange was over in seconds, and London proceeded to play out the interview — which was being streamed and listened to by thousands of Tomlinson stans around the world. Unbeknownst to London, who was still on air, they became immediately enraged. It wasn’t until London glanced at her phone after the show finished that she knew something had gone haywire.
“I looked at my phone and I was like ‘Oh boy, it’s begun’,” London told Music Junkee. “And at the time no one really believed me, because no one else in the office had an understanding about that culture like I did. But I called the head of social media at our company and he got it straight away and sprang into action.”
Tomlinson stans were furious with London for the perceived slight on their idol, and in the furore they’d also incorrectly attributed Kavalee’s jibe about Louis being the least popular 1D member to her as well. The responses were white hot and relentless, and graphically violent.
“Everything from ‘I hope you get raped’ to ‘I’m going to murder you’ to ‘I know where you live’ to ‘I hope you die’, ‘I hope someone murders you’,” London says. “Then there was funny stuff, like someone said that my boyfriend at the time looked like a mop, and I was like ‘That’s funny’ and we were laughing about that, because he kinda does.”
London’s employer, Southern Cross Austereo, quickly took over her social media accounts as things were spiralling out of control. It wasn’t limited to Twitter either — Tomlinson fans found London’s recent engagement photo on Instagram and bombarded it with violent threats. London’s partner refused to take the photo down, and instead manually deleted every single comment. Every single platform associated with London was besieged.
“I had 6000 messages on my engagement photo saying ‘I hope you both die on your honeymoon’ and ‘I hope your babies die’, it was just like so horrible,” London says.
It was arguably made worse by Tomlinson himself — who tweeted at London to “stay on private a little longer” as his fans swarmed her accounts, which seemed to only encourage them further. Before it died down, more than two million tweets had been written about the incident, and London still receives messages to this day, nearly three years later, telling her she should quit, that she should die, to kill herself. “Like…’You die, you snake, you bitch, you cunt’,” London says, shaking her head. She’s since quit Twitter permanently — not because of the Tomlinson incident directly, but rather she finds it a space of abject negativity.
Tomlinson never publicly apologised, and London says they didn’t have much contact after the incident. “I don’t want to speak for him, but I think by the end of it everyone had kind of realised that it had been blown way out of proportion,” she says. “And I think everyone wishes it didn’t happen, but it did happen, and there are so many different people involved, at so many different levels, in so many different countries. It sucked for everybody.”
This Is Nothing New
What London experienced at the end of 2017 wasn’t new, and it certainly wasn’t the last time popstar stans have banded together to abuse and harass journalists and public figures. Earlier this month, Taylor Swift fans mobbed Pitchfork critic Jillian Mapes after she reviewed Swift’s new album folklore. Mapes had glowingly written about it, and the album was gifted an 8/10 — exceedingly high for Pitchfork — but it wasn’t enough.
Mapes received death threats, she was doxxed, stans found her phone number and called her repeatedly in the middle of the night, a photo of her house was shared online. On her Twitter, now private, she wrote she’s received numerous emails calling her fat, ugly, a bitch, and that she’s just “jealous” of Taylor Swift. Mapes declined an interview for this article, with a spokesperson for Pitchfork writing that she is “shaken up” from the events.
Disgusted to hear that @jumonsmapes is being harassed and even threatened by Taylor Swift stans, with phone calls coming to her house in the middle of the night even. Fandom is toxic and there’s nothing funny about this.
— I’m Gary #CABBAGES (@noyokono) July 27, 2020
It wasn’t the only stan mobbing to occur in the last few weeks. Another music journalist, who wished to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, told Music Junkee they received violent threats for weeks in response to an article they’d written about a popular artist.
“I was being bombarded with people saying they wanted to hit me with their cars, find where I lived, get me fired. There was lots of encouragement that I kill myself,” they told Music Junkee. “A second wave started very quickly after the first. The second wave was much more targeted. It was less threats, and more planning to destroy my career — I was getting looped into Tweet threads in which stans were discussing how to find my employers, how to comb my online presence so they could find something embarrassing to use to cancel me.”
“They described how they were going to kill my pet; how they would find my house; how they’d get me fired. There were also a lot of threats about future punishment: promises that I’d never live this down, that they’d keep at me for days. One or two of the stans tried to “reason” with me, by which I mean instead of threatening me, they spammed me with long messages trying to explain why what I did was “wrong”. These messages were extremely sanctimonious. Most said something along the lines of, ‘I’m sorry you’re getting threatened, but you deserve it, and here’s why.'”
They’re still on Twitter, but in a reduced capacity, and they only use an application which allows them to post without seeing anyone else’s tweets.
Sticks And Stones And Stans
It’s easy to dismiss this online behaviour as frivolous, that it’s just stans being stans, and that’s what people should expect if they’re vocal online. People in online spaces already accept that — the cycle of cancelling, apologising (or not), and moving on is constant — but these instances are not simply negative feedback, they’re examples of sustained and co-ordinated harassment.
It’s also easy to claim that the internet, and Twitter specifically, isn’t ‘real life’, that if you simply put your phone down and ignore what’s happening online, you’ll be protected and unsusceptible to the abuse. But that argument is grossly outdated, and fundamentally misunderstands the role the internet now plays in our lives. The internet isn’t another life, it is a very large part of our real one.
“You can’t really understand what it’s like until you’ve been in the midst of it,” London says. “If it hadn’t happened to me I would have said ‘Oh, it’s not real, it’s the internet, these people don’t know you’. But when it’s actually happening to you, it is like hell.”
“I kept telling myself ‘It’s the internet, it’s not real’ but that didn’t help.”
The incident with Tomlinson’s fans sent London spiralling into what she calls “feral anxiety”, and she feared walking down the street in case she thought people were talking about her. For a year after the incident, she would get physically sick every time they played a pre-recorded interview on the show, worried that something else she said would be taken out of context and exploited.
“I had no control, and what I had done — I think — didn’t warrant the outcome,” she says. “I felt like whatever I do and whatever I say, it doesn’t matter, because bad things can happen anyway. Before that I had the idea of if you do good work, people would treat you well, and after that it was like ‘It doesn’t matter what I say, people will misconstrue it and I’ll get painted as the bad guy’…I kept telling myself ‘It’s the internet, it’s not real’ but that didn’t help.”
“I did feel very alone,” said the unnamed music journalist. “People don’t really understand what that experience is like until they go through it themselves, so some friends and family I tried to talk about what was happening to me made jokes about it, or brushed it off entirely. They were like, ‘Oh, but they’re only teenagers, right?’ or, ‘You’re not in any danger, though.’ It sounds silly, but for days afterwards, I’d have these dreams that my phone was pinging with hundreds of notifications. When I closed my eyes, I’d see the most violent threats. I couldn’t shake a feeling of being unsafe. I’d have a few panic attacks per day.”
They also admit to being very angry, of wanting to lash back at the stans online — to get in touch with their parents, to make them feel the repercussions of what they’d done. They didn’t end up acting on it, but they said the urge was “overwhelming”.
“I think stans want their victims to feel disgraced,” they say. “They want you to feel hounded; ostracised. They want people to be embarrassed to be associated with you. And on that front, they had a lot of initial success. I didn’t feel like I was in any real physical danger. But I definitely felt like I was being effectively shamed.”
It’s been nearly three years since the incident with Tomlinson’s stans, and London still thinks about it frequently. She’s not angry anymore, unlike in those first few months, but she is greatly concerned about the fact that this behaviour doesn’t seem to be changing.
“I’m in my 30s and I’ve some crazy shit happen in my life, and I’ve had years of psychology and I’m very self-aware and I’ve got a great support system around me, but I know that a lot of other people don’t have that same system in place,” she says, after a long pause. “I worry for regular humans that aren’t in the media industry. When you do what I do you sign up for the judgement, unfortunately you know you’re gonna be a target. But sometimes kids on the internet just say things, and then they have the wrath of tens or hundreds of thousands of stans, and that’s what worries me.
“For a lot of people, their whole lives do exist on the internet, and they don’t have a support system and a life outside of that. It’s easy for me to say ‘the real world is one thing the internet is another thing’ but for a lot of people, the online world is their real world. So when everyone is telling you they hate you, it feels like everyone in the whole world hates you. That worries me, because I got so much support — from people in media, at triple j, at other networks and other record labels — but it’s not the same for everyone else.”
She’s also keen to stress it’s not up to record labels, or the artists themselves, to police the behaviour of their fandoms. Rather, London says, there’s no one to blame — it’s the culture we live in.
Our anonymous music journalist disagrees, and believes that artists are the only people with any control over the way their fans behave, and so they must hold themselves accountable. “They need to take responsibility for how their fans carry themselves,” they argue. “Stans won’t listen to you or me; other journalists. They will only listen to popstars. These popstars know that this hate and harassment is going on, but they don’t give a shit. It’s disgusting.”
“My one wish is that people could put the same amount of passion into causes that would make the world a better place,” London says. “Like imagine if two million people, instead of telling me to kill myself, were fighting for a cleaner future — or fighting for refugees in Australia that are still stuck in detention. Things like that that I believe are worth our anger or vitriol.
“I wish I was the person I am now, back then. My response would have been different, but I am this person now because of that. I had to go through it to have a proper understanding of it, and have the growth.”
Jules LeFevre is the editor of Music Junkee. She is on Twitter.