The Future of Mobile

Viewpoint: Who watches the watchers?

Tim Maytom

In the wake of a Star Wars actor being hounded off of social media, Tim Maytom asks what responsibility brands have to cultivate a healthy fanbase

If you’ve seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi, you may remember the character of Rose Tico, the rebel engineer who accompanied former Stormtrooper Finn for much of the film’s action. Rose was portrayed by Kelly Marie Tran, a relatively unknown actress who won over many of the film’s fans with her plucky performance and enthusiastic presence on social media. Unfortunately, they weren’t the only ones following her online.

Over the weekend, the 29-year-old actress wiped all of her posts from Instagram, and while she hasn’t commented on the decision to do so, it is widely presumed to be due to the torrent of abuse and hate speech she has received via this and other social channels. So-called Star Wars fans who were displeased with The Last Jedi and the direction of the franchise made her a target for their ire, directing a non-stop stream of often racist and sexist abuse towards her.

Tran isn’t the only Star Wars actor to face such harassment – Daisy Ridley, who also starred in The Last Jedi and 2015’s The Force Awakens deleted her Instagram account in 2016, calling it bad for mental health. If you think it’s a coincidence that both of the actors who have borne the brunt of the harassment are female, you are living in a very sheltered online world.

Numerous figures associated with Star Wars including Rian Johnson, director of The Last Jedi, and author Chuck Wendig have spoken out against the treatment Tran has received and the behaviour of these so-called fans, but Lucasfilm and Disney, who now owns the Star Wars franchise, have been silent, and it’s for this reason that I’m talking about this sad state of affairs on a digital marketing site.

Social media has created a world where the distance between creator and fan is shorter than ever. Actors, writers, directors, musicians, models and sports stars all maintain accounts across multiple platforms, carrying out conversations with the people who consume their work. A new type of celebrity, the influencer, has even risen up from this new world, essentially defined by their ability to connect with fans rather than their work in a more traditional medium.

The companies and organisations that public figures work with (be they film studios, record labels, sports clubs or fashion designers) usually encourage this kind of accessibility on social media, as it constitutes an excellent and cost-effective form of marketing, and advertisers or sponsors who partner with celebrities likewise use their social media profiles to augment and support campaigns, even if they are not the primary channel. For most people involved in marketing, the more famous people on platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, the better.

But this reduction in distance also opens creators and celebrities up to abuse and harassment, and in recent years what may have once been a trickle has turned into a tidal wave. Social media has made it easier for ‘fans’ with a hateful agenda to find each other, and organised campaigns of harassment and abuse have affected industries like video games and publishing over the past five years (almost always attacking women, people of colour or LGBTQ creators).

This leads me to two questions. First of all, what do brands owe to their creators? Most entertainment brands wouldn’t exist without the hard work of creative people, and the presence of these creators on social media makes it easier for such brands to build an audience, promote their products and establish a successful, engaged relationship with consumers. Meanwhile, advertisers and sponsors tap into those relationships to power campaigns, drive sales or support their brand.

I don’t know what kind of social media training your average actor gets when they sign up for major release, or a footballer gets when they are picked up by a big-league club, but I know that these organisations are almost certainly better equipped to shepherd their presence on social media. Platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter succeed in part because users have unfiltered access to celebrities, but with the technology that exists now, surely there is some way for brands to help their representatives avoid the worst of the online vitriol.

Secondly, when does this kind of behaviour from so-called fans start to become a brand concern? As I mentioned above, no official representatives from Star Wars, Lucasfilm or Disney have spoken out about the abuse Tran has faced as of my writing this, but surely one of the actors from a key franchise being driven off social media isn’t a good look for a brand?

I’m reminded, in many ways, of the scourge of football hooliganism in English football of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Like these online abusers, the hooligans were not true fans but men (and it is almost always men) seeking to stir up tribalism and using it as an excuse to vent their aggression and violence. Just like with football hooliganism, online abuse is often directed at people of colour associated with entertainment brands, and I’m sure if football clubs had featured women playing, they would have attracted the same harassment and threats that women see online today.

The violence and abuse associated with English football tarnished the sport for many years, and it was only following government intervention that football began to recover and English clubs were allowed back into European competitions. Organised online abuse is much less likely to make news headlines, lacking the kind of real-life clashes that occurred during hooliganism’s heights, but it can have the same effect on brands, driving away consumers who would otherwise become engaged customers.

During the 70s and 80s, football clubs were often accused of not doing enough to curtail the actions of this violent, abusive minority. Brands need to be more aware of the damage that such an element can have on their reputation. They need to be outspoken when it comes to condemning this kind of behaviour, and work hard to help cultivate fan communities that reject such harassment and instead focus on celebrating the products and the creators responsible for them.

In The Last Jedi, Rose Tico tells Finn “That’s how we’re gonna win: not fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love.” It’s a lesson that brands should take to heart.