In early March, Ava DuVernay tweeted a link to a Vulture essay by critic Craig Jenkins about re-evaluating Michael Jackson’s legacy in the wake of Leaving Neverland. The reaction -- a swarm of comments telling her to “be ashamed” of herself and to “do actual research” -- shocked the director. “Michael Jackson super fans are really going hard in my comments for simply sharing an article,” she wrote. She then highlighted what she called “one of the kindler” comments she received: “Sellouts like you don’t deserve our respect you can kindly go to the trash.”
Perhaps DuVernay should have seen this coming. Opposition to the film is a reminder that, despite Jackson’s heyday preceding the internet, his superfans are just like any other stans: They will aggressively defend their star online. Stans can do this over the smallest slights. In 2016, some Camila Cabello fans targeted her then-Fifth Harmony bandmate Normani with racist harassment after she described Cabello in an interview as “very quirky.” Yet the gravity of the claims against Jackson and the intense pushback from some of his stans show that it goes the other way too: When a fan’s identity is wrapped up in that of an artist, any attack on the artist seems to be taken as a personal attack -- one worth fighting at all costs.
That was as true in the 1980s as it is today, even with the advent of social media. “I don’t see a lot of difference in the way fans behave now as opposed to pre-Internet fans,” says Katherine Larsen, a George Washington University professor who edits the Journal of Fandom Studies. “It really is the same culture but with different tools.” And despite all the progress the #MeToo movement has brought, Larsen also notes that Jackson defenders can be seen as part of a larger “cultural resistance” to believing sexual abuse claims: “We’re still on some level conditioned to say, ‘How do we know they’re telling the truth?’”