The direct communication offered by social media has “formed a more intimate kind of parasocial relationship.”
Filling Social Voids
Over the past couple of years, discourse about parasocial relationships has flooded the internet. From criticism to memes to misunderstandings, the phrase has been thrown around Twitter in discussions of fan culture and even celebrity cheating scandals.
But why do we engage in parasocial relationships? What do they do for us? Well, according to Dr. Gayle Stever, a professor of psychology at Empire State College who has studied parasocial theory for decades, our brain is always wired to look for a social connection, whether we are with other people or just seeing them on television.
“There’s a part of your brain that can’t really tell the difference between a person in real life and a person through media,” Stever explained in an interview with Rogue Rocket. “So those images and voices are all being processed as if they are real. So if you see the same face and voice over and over and over, your human tendency is to want to form a relationship with that person.”
Earlier studies on parasocial relationships focused on soap operas, which was the closest thing people had to binge-watching prior to Netflix or YouTube. Older people who spent a lot of time alone were especially glued to soaps every day, and these shows filled a social void for people who were lonely.
Parasocial relationships can fill a number of voids for anyone, be they for role models, entertainment, companionship, or even romance. While conducting her research, Stever met a woman who had recently lost her husband to cancer. That woman thought the romantic part of her life was over until she became a fan of Josh Groban and had a crush on him despite her being old enough to be his mother.
“What did that do for her? Well, what she said, ‘I realized that that part of my emotions was still there, that I could still have a romantic feeling about somebody,’” Stever said. “’And I’m thinking now about dating again.’”
Stever pointed to this as an example of a really healthy parasocial relationship, as it helped her break down the walls of her social life. Without you even realizing it, you may have formed some parasocial relationships to fill gaps in your life, too.
The Influence of COVID and Social Media
During the pandemic, the whole world experienced increased loneliness, so we connected to people we saw on our screens. Stever even joked that during lockdowns, she would call talk show host Steven Colbert her “parasocial therapist.”
“He was helping you as a viewer process the challenges of the pandemic by letting you see how he was coping with it,” Stever said.
“In that particular case, using humor to help sort of defuse some of the tension of what people were experiencing socially,” she added. “So you walk away from the show and you feel like, oh, gosh, there’s somebody else who understands what I’m going through.”
Even prior to the pandemic, social media allowed us to get further into the lives of people we had never met. On Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and more, people invited the world into their lives, even into their homes, while looking directly at the camera to address viewers. This direct communication is more likely to elicit parasocial relationships.
“It’s a very interpersonal feeling to the interaction,” Stever noted.
“I do think that that social media, because of the direct address, has formed a more intimate kind of parasocial relationship.”
Social media also opens the door for celebrities to interact back by responding to Tweets or comments. Because of this, Stever said she has started looking at this as a continuum from social to parasocial because in some cases, celebrities might recognize and know who their fans are based on these interactions.
“Obviously that’s not the norm,” Stever added. “But it’s possible.”
The Internet has also changed the way fans connect with one another. Back when Stever began studying fandoms in the ‘80s, fans had to find each other by putting out ads in magazines looking for people to join pen pal groups. Now you can access a world of people with a device that fits in your back pocket.
“They can go on Facebook or Instagram and find like-minded fans and become part of a network of fans and have that be part of their social life,” Stever noted.
Conflating Fan Mentality and Stalkers
Some might think of fans and immediately jump to extreme and obsessive behavior like stalking and harassment. There are countless stories of major stars like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and David Beckham dealing with scary situations and even death threats. Stever, however, does not think this dangerous behavior is as tied to the nature of parasocial relationships as some might think.
“There are people out there who think celebrity worship is a slippery slope to mental illness. I haven’t seen it,” she claimed.
“I’ve done case studies of fans for over 30 years, and I meet a lot of fans face to face,” Stever continued. “Most of the fans I meet who are troubled fans, who are engaging in a way that’s not healthy, have an underlying mental illness.”
In other words, she believes it has far more to do with a mental illness that person likely had before they were a fan of the celebrity than with their interest in the celebrity itself. Based on her observations, the vast majority of fans she has met are grounded in reality and understand they will likely never meet the celebrity they love. She also said she has not noticed that superfans struggle with mental illness at a higher rate than the population at large.
Still, she noted her opinion on the matter could be considered “moderately controversial” because the subject requires more research, so there is room for disagreement among experts.
“It’s the old, it’s already said, chicken and the egg question,” she said. “Which came first, the fixation on the celebrity or the underlying issue that has caused them to become fixated? And, really, we need a whole lot more research to definitively answer that question.”
Some who have experienced stalkers firsthand have agreed with Stever’s observations, though. Alexis Bowater, a TV and news presenter in the U.K. who has been stalked herself, previously told BBC News that she feels superfans and stalkers have little in common.
“Stalkers frighten people and fans don’t,” she told the outlet.
Of course, other experts have noted that in order to prevent a parasocial relationship from becoming unhealthy, it’s important to make sure that they do not replace real relationships with people you know.
But as Stever noted, that doesn’t mean watching something with your favorite celebrity does not feel very personal. That is actually a totally normal part of media consumption today.
“I would venture that these media people we watch over and over, we know more about them than we know about our neighbors,” Stever claimed.
Andrew Tate to Remain in Romanian Detention After Losing Appeal
The controversial influencer, accused of sex trafficking and organized crime, has maintained his innocence.
A Romanian court on Wednesday upheld a judge’s decision to extend influencer Andrew Tate’s arrest another 30 days.
The judge initially tacked the extra time onto his detention on Jan. 20. According to BBC News, the judge cited “the capacity…of the defendants to exercise permanent psychological control over the victims, including by resorting to constant acts of violence”.
Tate appealed that decision alongside his brother and two others, all of whom were arrested as part of an ongoing sex trafficking and organized crime investigation. The court’s Wednesday decision rejected that appeal, meaning Tate and the other accused individuals will remain in custody until at least Feb. 27.
Investigators claim that Tate lured victims under the guise of a romantic relationship, only to place them under surveillance and force them to make pornographic content. Tate has denied the accusations.
“You know I’m innocent,” Tate said to reporters Wednesday morning while walking into the courtroom.
“Ask them for evidence and they will give you none,” he added while leaving court. “Because it doesn’t exist. You’ll find out the truth of this case soon.”
Tate’s Controversial Online Presence
Ever since December his arrest, Tate’s Twitter account has continued to post sometimes cryptic messages about the investigation into him.
“Would your life be fine without you?” he tweeted on Tuesday, one day before his appeal was rejected. “In Romania. They can steal your life without a trial. They do not need evidence, In this system, innocent men return to ruined lives. My life outside is fine. But for most men, 6 months detained and their whole life will crumble.”
Tate is a controversial online figure famous for spreading violent misogyny to his often young male followers. He has been banned by a number of social media platforms for his drastic remarks, including one where he said rape victims should “bear responsibility” for the assault they endured.
Tate and his brother recently added high-profile lawyer Tina Glandian to their defense team. Glandian has previously represented celebrities like Chris Brown, Jussie Smollett, and Kesha.
On Wednesday, she said there is a “lack of evidence against the Tate brothers.”
“So far the system has failed,” she said, via the Associated Press.
See what others are saying: (BBC News) (The Associated Press) (Rolling Stone)
QTCinderalla Vows to Sue Deepfake Website: “Constant Objectification” is “Exhausting”
The streamer said that anyone who chooses to view nonconsensual deepfake porn is “the problem.”
QTCinderella Plans Legal Action
Twitch streamer QTCinderalla said during a Monday stream that she is going to sue the maker of a website that hosts explicit deepfake images of herself and other content creators.
“I promise you, with every part of my fucking soul, I am going to sue you,” QTCinderella, whose real name is Blaire, said through tears.
Blaire went live after fellow streamer Atrioc accidentally revealed on Twitch that he had an open tab to a website that hosts deepfake porn. Graphic images of high-profile female streamers were visible his browser, and the website also includes deepfakes of more creators, including Blaire.
Atrioc apologized for accessing deepfake images on a website that promotes explicit content of his female streaming colleagues. He claimed that he got “morbidly curious” and “clicked something” after falling down an artificial intelligence rabbit hole online.
“It’s gross,” he said. “It’s gross and I’m sorry.”
In the past, Blaire has talked about having to pay services thousands of dollars to remove graphic deepfake content that has been posted without her consent. Despite those efforts, it is an issue she still has to deal with on a regular basis.
“Fuck the fucking Internet,” she said during her Monday stream. “Fuck the constant objectification and exploitation of women, it’s exhausting.”
“Fuck Atrioc for showing it to thousands of people,” she continued. “Fuck the people DMing me pictures of myself from that website.”
The Objectification of Female Streamers
Blaire said that it “should not be a part of [her] job” to constantly fight for this content to be removed from the Internet, nor should it be her job to deal with the onslaught of harassment that comes with the dissemination of these fabricated images.
“If you are able to look at women who are not selling themselves or benefiting off of being seen sexually — they’re not benefiting, they’re not selling it, they’re not platforming it themselves — if you are able to look at that, you are the problem,” she said. “You see women as an object.”
On Twitter, she explained that the repercussions of these deepfakes go far beyond exploitation and violation.
“The amount of body dysmorphia I’ve experienced since seeing those photos has ruined me,” she said.
She was far from the only person to call out how invasive it is to post or consume deepfake content of people who did not consent to being depicted in a sexual manner.
“Stop sexualizing people without their consent,” Pokimane, who is also among the female streamers featured on the site, said. “That’s it, that’s the tweet.”
“No one should have themselves be put on a deepfake porn website w/o their consent and it’s fucking disgusting at the men who are making light of this shit. fucking despicable,” another person wrote.
Britney Spears Asks For Privacy After Fans Called Cops to Conduct a Wellness Check on Her
Fans said they were concerned after the singer deleted her Instagram account.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was updated to include a statement from Britney Spears
Fans Call 911
Britney Spears said her fans “went a little too far” after some called the police to conduct a wellness check on her.
The fans, many fueled by online conspiracy theories, were concerned about Spears because she deleted her Instagram account. While this is something the singer has done multiple times in the past, her fans thought she had left secret signals in her last post suggesting she needed help.
Some even posted videos of them calling emergency services on TikTok, a platform that is full of conspiracy videos about Spears.
“I love and adore my fans but this time things went a little too far and my privacy was invaded,” Spears wrote in a statement on Thursday, citing “prank phone calls” that were made to police.
According to Spears, officers did not enter her home because once they got to her gate, they “quickly realized there was no issue and left immediately.”
“This felt like I was being gaslit and bullied once the incident made it to the news and being portrayed once again in a poor and unfair light by the media,” Spears continued. “During this time in my life, I truly hope the public and my fans who I care so much about can respect my privacy moving forward.”
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Ventura County Sheriff’s Office confirmed to Page Six that the department “did get calls into our dispatch” but added there was no reason to believe that Spears was “in any kind of harm or any kind of danger.”
That spokesperson declined to say if officials contacted Spears or conducted a wellness check, citing privacy and public trust issues.
The Prominence of Britney Spears Conspiracies
Just over a year has passed since Spears was freed from a highly restrictive conservatorship that controlled her life and finances for 13 years. Throughout the conservatorship, fans tried to use the pop icon’s social media to pick up clues that she was secretly struggling. She did not publicly speak about the conservatorship until the summer of 2021.
Now that she has her freedom, fans are still reading heavily into her posts. Some believe there are hidden messages in her captions and in the gestures she does while dancing. Others think she is dead, missing, or hiding and that a body double is being used in her posts. Some are so concerned that they are coordinating a mass effort to pressure the Los Angeles Times into investigating Spears’ whereabouts and safety.
In the last several years, many have reflected on Spears’ early days in the spotlight and the cruel ways she was harassed and targeted by paparazzi, news outlets, and culture at large. Often the punchline to a joke throughout the 2000s, many now sympathize with Spears, who was forced to endure heavy public scrutiny at a young age. Documentaries like “Framing Britney Spears” prompted many to see Spears as a victim of abusive media tactics, not the “crazy” woman tabloids painted her to be.
Many are now concerned that fans are only going to subject Spears to a new onslaught of harassment by calling the police to her house. Even if the conspiracy theories are technically well-intentioned and often come from a place of concern, some believe they will jumpstart a media frenzy that could harm Spears’ mental well-being.