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What Ye’s online warfare reveals about the dangers of celebrity fandom

Some fans of the rapper, formerly known as Kanye West, see his social media warfare as meme fodder, but others worry the attention is unhealthy.
Image: Kanye West, Celebrity Sightings In New York City - January 05, 2022
Kanye West in N.Y., on Jan. 5, 2022.Gotham / GC Images file

Ethan Abrenica, a freshman at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was packing for a road trip to Los Angeles last Sunday when shortly after midnight his Instagram and Reddit notifications began “blowing up.” 

“I just started shaking, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, no way. No way Kanye actually just posted my meme,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get his attention forever, since he’s my favorite artist.”

Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, had posted a picture to Instagram of an altered “Captain America: Civil War” movie poster, which showed the rapper facing off against his ex-wife and reality television superstar Kim Kardashian West, her new boyfriend and NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” cast member Pete Davidson, and other celebrities he has feuded with, including the pop stars Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift. 

It was a picture made by Abrenica. He said he made it in a few minutes using the free photo editing app Pic Collage, then posted it to the “r/Kanye” fan community on Reddit with a watermark showing Abrenica’s Reddit and Instagram usernames.

Ye posted the meme in the midst of a torrent of social media activity in recent days, in which the rapper and artist has professed his desire to get back together with Kardashian West and his anger toward Davidson. Ye, who has more than 14 million Instagram followers, has posted multiple creations made by fans and screenshots of comments left by fans. He has also posted screenshots of private text messages from Kardashian West and Davidson, including texts from his former wife asking him to stop posting their private conversations. In one text, Kardashian West cautioned Ye that Davidson was going to get hurt because of his posts.

All the posts have since been deleted, but screenshots have spread across the internet.

Plenty of celebrities have attracted devoted, and at times aggressive, online fan bases, and in some cases those groups have gone beyond fandom and spilled over into harassment. In other instances, celebrities have utilized their fan bases to silence critics or push their agendas, sometimes also using the content their fans create. It’s a dynamic that can sweep up even well-meaning fans, while also fueling others who see no problem going to extremes to support their favorite celebrities.

“You have this confluence of people’s actions, some of which are not necessarily maliciously motivated, some of which are negligent, some of which are just kind of thoughtless, and the technology rewards engagement,” said Krista Thomason, an associate professor of philosophy at Swarthmore College, who has published research on online shaming. “When you have something provocative and controversial, it gets more and more engagement, and more and more rewarded.”

Ye’s willingness to engage his fans in his personal feuds has left onlookers debating their own role in the saga. Huffington Post opinion editor Stephen A. Crockett Jr. wrote that “all the toxicity, the triggering, the gaslighting and the attention — from the media and fans — is normalizing poisonous and unhealthy behavior.”

Ye’s actions have sparked concern before. The artist has been outspoken about having bipolar disorder and choosing not to take medication or work with therapists. (On “Eazy,” Ye’s most recent track, he raps, “No more counselin,’ I don’t negotiate with therapists.”)

Psychiatrists and media ethics experts told Insider in July 2020, as Ye unsuccessfully ran for president, that the artist’s outbursts should be contextualized with his mental health, rather than viewed as a media spectacle. But over a year later, Ye’s fandom and millions of onlookers are tuning into and commenting on his divorce.

A spokesperson for Ye didn’t respond to a request for comment, but other celebrities have argued that his behavior shouldn’t be viewed as entertainment. The actor and activist Jameela Jamil wrote on Instagram that “even famous people, when clearly going through something with their mental health should be off limits when it comes to internet lols.”

“We are watching a mentally ill man coaxed over the edge by our engagement/media attention,” the English actor wrote. “The consequences of this getting worse/messier will be him losing access to his kids.”

For Abrenica, the college freshman who made the “Captain America: Civil War” meme, becoming part of Ye’s interpersonal feuds was unexpected. While making the meme, he said he had no expectation that millions of people — including Ye and his family — would see it. 

“I posted it on Reddit as a joke, and I never meant anything serious,” he said. “I never imagined it would get this big. It still leaves me speechless.”

Abrenica says Ye isn’t just his favorite artist, but is also his idol, and the inspiration for him to pursue design. Abrenica is an architecture major, and has seen Ye debut new music live. But he said he doesn’t agree with the way Ye is conducting himself online now. 

“I understand where Kanye is coming from, since he wants to be back with Kim and his kids and everything,” he said. “He’s not doing it in the right way. Posting all over Instagram, using capital letters, it sounds like he’s harassing or threatening.”

One since-deleted post on Ye’s Instagram is written from a first-person perspective and says, “I know sharing screen shots was jarring and came off as harassing Kim. I take accountability.” Shortly after that caption was posted, posts on Ye’s page returned to all caps.

Thomason said the line between a celebrity “as a person” and a celebrity “as an artist” blurs on social media, where followers are treated to intimate moments from their favorite celebrities’ lives. Fans are encouraged to participate, she said, as social media platforms incentivize engagement.

“Social media is a place where we go to get attention,” Thomason, who specializes in moral psychology and social philosophy, said. “So, you make a meme and you’re a 19-year-old kid and ‘Oh, my God, this celebrity Kanye West has reposted my meme, people are liking and commenting on it, isn’t that amazing?’”

Abrenica said that he feels loyal to Ye, but that some fans are blindly supportive of the rapper, and even take advantage of him. 

Zack Routon, a 25-year-old musician who lives in New Jersey, comments on almost every Instagram post from Ye, so much so that his account name “prodbyzaqq” has become notorious within Ye’s fandom. Ye has also reposted some of his comments.

“If you’ve been on Kanye’s posts, you can’t not see me,” he said on Wednesday. 

Ye follows Routon back on Instagram, although Routon said the two have never spoken. But Routon said he doesn’t believe Ye takes the comments on his posts seriously, and he doesn’t view himself as enabling the rapper’s behavior.

“Clearly he’s going through something. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s hyping up ‘Donda 2,’” Routon said, referring to Ye’s upcoming album release. “Really, this is the smartest thing he could be doing, in this technology age.”

Thomason said that Routon’s ability to get the top of Ye’s comment section reflects on the way social media algorithms play a role in elevating certain positions.

“It’s so easy for people to just look at it from their little corner and not see the bigger picture,” she said. “The commenter, he’s not taking it that seriously and he’s sort of imaginatively projecting himself into Kanye’s shoes and thinking he’s not taking it seriously, too.”

Thomason also said the incentivization to build engagement on social media platforms has led  some social media users to copy what they see from others. 

“Especially when you look at people who have successfully built brands, using these same kinds of tactics, you can totally see why someone who wants to do that very same thing would engage in exactly the same behavior,” she said. “Guess what? It’s working.”