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The year of the stan: How the internet's super fans went from pop stars to politics

Stans mobilized behind political and social issues in 2020, taking their cues from the public stances of the stars and celebrities they idolize.
Image: Eminem as Stan, a character in the music video for \"Stan,\" over a table of \"Vote\" stickers, letters to Congress, with posters of the White House and Stan in a suit and tie in the background.
Nick Little / for NBC News

In March, after France entered into lockdown as the first wave of the coronavirus throttled the nation, Lorian De Sousa turned to Twitter with nothing but time on his hands.

De Sousa, 20, a devout Smiler, the moniker given to fans of the pop singer and actor Miley Cyrus, created the account Out of Context Hannah Montana, posting random scenes from the iconic Disney Channel show.

The account now has more than 65,700 followers.

“Everything really started back in April, when I randomly posted that 'Hannah Montana' scene, which we can see Miley's character leaving her childhood home. … And today it's basically, in a very subtle way, one of the biggest Miley stan accounts on Twitter,” De Sousa told NBC News.

Even as the account’s momentum gathered this spring, De Sousa never anticipated it would become a vehicle for activism and political engagement.

This year though, as political and social issues dominated the discourse in the United States while the pandemic ravaged nations around the globe and forced more people into digital spaces, stan accounts — accounts devoted to a pop star or celebrity — both in the U.S. and abroad used their platforms to support or influence issues like Black Lives Matter and the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

On Twitter, stan accounts like De Sousa’s are prolific, acting as unofficial publicists, de facto PR teams and crowdsourced gossip columns for the stars they follow. At any given moment, there are dozens of accounts dedicated to a certain singer, rapper or star, with these super fans trying to suss out the artist’s next appearance, when a new album will drop, sharing their favorite photos and meticulously tracking and comparing sales and chart positions of albums and songs.

Of the half-dozen stan account managers who spoke with NBC News, most said having a large, mostly like-minded audience allowed them to mobilize their followers to participate in social and political issues this year. They also credited the pandemic with pushing people online, where they were more likely to encounter stan accounts.

The phrase “stan” is typically credited to the 2000 Eminem song “Stan,” in which the rapper depicts a fan who is obsessed with him to the point of madness.

Like De Sousa’s status as a Smiler, stans also typically have a sobriquet associated with the star they follow. Lady Gaga stans are Little Monsters, Taylor Swift stans are Swifties, Ariana Grande stans are Arianators, Nicki Minaj stans are Barbz (short for Barbies), BTS stans are called Army and Beyoncé stans identify as part of the Beyhive.

But the relationship between stan and star goes both ways, with stans mobilizing to the point of sometimes influencing celebrity behavior.This mobilization around stars and celebrities can sometimes go too far and result in bullying and even racism in the community. Stans have also been critiqued for appropriating Black culture such as African American Vernacular English, or AAVE.

The summer of stans

Prior to the pandemic and the social unrest of the summer, 2020 began with stan accounts behaving as normal.

Little Monsters managed to leak “Stupid Love,” the lead single from Lady Gaga's album “Chromatica,” weeks ahead of the song's official release. Rihanna Navy, fans of the singer Rihanna, hunted for clues about if and when the artist would release her ninth studio album. Swifties celebrated the singer making the cover of the January 2020 edition of British Vogue.

But after the death of George Floyd in May, stan Twitter rallied behind Black Lives Matter and the protests against anti-Black racism.

“Of course I participated in a lot of movements this year, especially the Black Lives Matter movement. I remember my account taking a completely different meaning during these days, during that time. ... Even though I'm French and from Paris, I really felt concerned about these movements,” De Sousa said. “So during, I remember thinking, ‘I don't want to share my usual content in such a crisis.’”

Although all different kinds of stans joined together to support those fighting for equality, in many cases, K-pop stans, fans of Korean pop music, helmed the support by trolling those who stood in opposition to the movement.

“Fandoms are built on these characteristics that make them perfect activists and creators for change,” said Nicole Santero, 28, a sociology doctoral student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, studying the culture and social structure of the BTS Army fandom, arguably one of the most influential stan groups in the world. Santero is also a fan of BTS and runs the Twitter account ResearchBTS, which has more than 90,000 followers.

This year, K-pop stans hijacked racist hashtags, flooding hashtags like #whitelivesmatter with nonsense or unrelated images. Online police tip lines were inundated, in part, with images of K-pop groups and in some cases had to be shut down. Later in the year, K-pop stans went on to flood the #MillionMAGAMarch hashtag, a demonstration in support of President Donald Trump after his unsuccessful bid for re-election, with pictures of pancakes.

"Mobilizing on social media is super easy for fans," Santero said. "They essentially do this every day. So taking over these racist hashtags and trolling politicians, it’s kind of this super tiny example in comparison to bigger, real world, positive impacts that fans actually make..

In June, BTS and their record label Big Hit Entertainment donated $1 million to support the Black Lives Matter campaign. In approximately one day, their fans matched that amount.

“Word spreads so quickly in these networks. We really see how quickly fans can come together and take collective action. In terms of what we saw this year, K-pop fans and BTS fans definitely gained a lot of attention, especially with their involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement,” Santero said. “They’re very aware of the power they have.”

While Santero said K-pop stans weren’t trying to be political in their activism, some experts say the act of engaging in an issue like Black Lives Matter, though outside the typical U.S. political binary of left and right, is inherently a political act.

“Everything you do that is personal is political, meaning that everything you do is informed by some systemic or political ideology,” said Casidy Campbell, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan who studies the internet, technology and Black girls. “If I as a Black person or anyone can offer a critique to what you do, there is something political in what you did.”

Politics and stans

As the protests marched through the nation in June and the coronavirus continued to ravage the country, Trump was preparing to hold a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

His supporters who planned to attend were encouraged to reserve tickets online. But once corners of the internet like stan Twitter got word that tickets could be reserved for free, they seized on the opportunity for a troll.

Although it’s unclear if stans and TikTok users, who had teamed up for the troll, had any effect on the rally's low turnout, they still took a victory lap on social media.

As the election approached, stan accounts used their platforms to advocate for certain candidates.

“We were actively tweeting ‘vote blue,’ so people were engaged,” said Moyin Sekoni, 17, who helps run Doja Crave, a stan account for singer and rapper Doja Cat. “And that was just the icing on top, when Doja put on her Instagram story that she voted.”

In most cases, the political leaning of a stan account will take its cues from the values and public stances of the star the account is stanning.

“It just shows our fan base, the stans, we can all rally behind Gaga and talk about her music, but we can also rally behind the same causes because Gaga is passionate about them, too,” said Jake Phillips, 19, of Los Angeles, who runs a Lady Gaga updates Twitter account. “I think it’s important because I have this small following that other people can find these resources from my account, as well.”

Stans in 2020 used their influence for causes they believe in and have earned praise from some for their role in helping move social issues forward. But stan culture itself has long wrestled with toxic and problematic behaviors, which include racism, appropriation of Black culture and bullying.

Under a microscope in the mainstream

Although stan culture made the leap from an online niche group to the mainstream after its involvement in the social and political issues of 2020, the spotlight of this year has also laid bare the issues that have long plagued stan culture — especially on social media.

Moyin said she’s witnessed racism and bigotry in the stan community, sometimes in the form of “troll accounts,” which are accounts created only to incite a mob against those who a stan feels has wronged their favorite icon.

“They’ll put Lady Gaga as their profile picture and then they tweet out mean things, racist, xenophobic things so people be mad at Lady Gaga,” Moyin said, describing an example of the impersonation and racism that takes place in the stan community.

Santero mentioned that some K-pop fans actually prefer not to be identified as stans because of the often negative connotation stans have earned over time.

K-pop has been plagued by accusations of appropriating Black culture, for example, wearing Black hairstyles like braids and cornrows, “talking Black” and even wearing blackface, according to Vox.

In recent months, white and non-POC stans in the community have also been scrutinized for appropriating African American Vernacular English, or AAVE.

“The language gets appropriated, and often there’s no sort of recognition of where it comes from. It becomes gimmicky. It can almost come off as a caricature of Black folk,” Campbell said. “On top of that ... you get access to different opportunities or you're thought to be funny when really your idea of how you use language really isn’t that original.”

Campbell said there is a Catch-22 when it comes to stan culture, especially as stan culture moved into the political realm this year.

Stans supporting movements that are pushing for equality and an end to systemic oppression is appreciated, but the effort has to be more than a one-time event — especially when so much of the culture is rooted in Black culture.

“There’s a line you have to be aware that you’re crossing. When are you being influenced and when are you taking on too much?” Campbell said.

All of the account managers who spoke to NBC News acknowledged the toxicity that exists in the stan community. But many said they wanted to find ways to continue to advocate for causes they believe in, saying their participation in social and political issues won’t end in 2020.

“I plan to use my account to support political activities again in the future. That's something that I really want to do. That's still something that I still do right now, when I see something that I don't feel is right, or that I really want to lay the stress on, like a social issue or anything,” De Sousa said. “I just want to use my account to lay the stress on that and just to make more people aware of what's going on.”