“I’m addicted to you, don’t you know that you’re Toxic?”
How #FreeBritney was mobilised through Britney Spears’ fandom
Group: WG2 -1
Carolina Valente Pinto
Kuan Yin Zoe Chan
The Power of Fans
On the 5th of October 2021, Britney Spears posted a video much like the ones of the past two years — standing in front of the camera, looking up and dancing. On this one, the caption read:
Spears was addressing not just her fan base, as celebrities usually do, but a specific group of fans — the #FreeBritney movement — that had strived, since 2019, to end her father’s power over her body, money and agency through a tough conservatorship that began in 2007. At the time of this Instagram post, it was widely known that Britney was on the way to becoming a fully independent woman again — the enormous media attention included the release of documentaries such as Netflix’s Britney vs Spears (2021), directed by fan and film-maker Erin Lee Carr, and The New York Times’ Framing Britney Spears (2021). But how did the early efforts of fan theories mobilise the change that we have witnessed now?
The #FreeBritney movement provides a clear study example around notions of ‘fan activism’ and “cyberactivism” in the digital sphere. The nature of fandom has transformed thanks to social media, heightening interactions between celebrities and fans, and fans amongst themselves (Mudrick, Miller & Atkin 2016). Platform affordances such as commenting, liking, and re-tweeting allow more personal, and real-time interactions between celebrities and fans, in a seemingly unmediated environment. The “proximity” fans feel to celebrities creates “parasocial relationships” — more intimate relationships of care and investment in the personal issues of these personalities (Chung & Cho 2017). At the same time, it creates opportunities for fans to mobilise themselves to achieve a certain goal or highlight particular social issues, as “the internet allows fans to transcend geographical barriers to form communities that could not otherwise exist” (Guschwan 2016). Whether it is K-pop group BTS’ fandom donating $1 million to #BlackLivesMatter (Rolli 2020) or Beyoncé’s fandom pressuring her to publicly support #EndSars (Bowenbank 2020), fans are no longer passive consumers, but a powerful body with the tools and power to cause change —making way to a new form of “cyberactivism” where the dimensions or dualisms such as the “commercial and political, public and private, fan and fan object” merge together (Daros 2021).
This research aims to reflect on participatory networks and publics in relation to fandom, and their power to mobilise from Tweet threads, into broadcasting media, subsequently enacting (legal) change. Henry Jenkins describes participatory culture as “one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another” (1992), highlighting features of participatory cultures such as “affiliations”, “collaborative problem-solving”, and “circulations”. #FreeBritney fans connect through their mutual love for Britney and concern for her well-being, arming themselves with social media tools to collaborate with each other to identify the issues, organise how they would be able to support Britney, and eventually making a change.
Additionally, online participatory culture has been increasingly mobilised through hashtags, which more quickly — and in a catchier way — create focus, attention, and effectiveness. This is seen in the case of protests such as #OccupyWallStreet in 2011, known as the earliest example of hashtag activism (Berkowitz 2011) and #FreeBritney. Although the term “digital activism” is contested due to its vagueness (Kaun & Uldam 2018), and presents its own set of problematic points which Morozov describes as “slacktivism” — where “digital effort makes us feel very useful and important but have zero impact” (2009) — we believe it is the best way to describe the nature of the #FreeBritney movement as it captures the spreadability, scale and the accessibility of the internet by fandom (Sivitanies & Shah 2013).
In order to get a sense of how this movement grew and spread across platforms to then reach broadcast media and change Spears’ legal status, we will focus on the first posts “analysed” by fans through what Jamie Spears deemed “conspiracy theories”, in unlocking their comments and re-tweets. Before the conservatorship was looked at by the news or courts, fans were looking at Britney’s captions, use of clothing, movement, backgrounds and other potential “secret” symbols that could tell exactly what was going on.
Our method consists of image and textual analysis from a series of Britney Spears’ Instagram posts, from June to August of 2020 — and further tracing of the networks generated by these posts, in a cross-platform analysis on Instagram and Twitter, making use of tweet scraping matching the time-frame for the Instagram posts analysed. Scraping, in relation to social media research, has been deemed an “important part of what makes digital social research practically possible” (Marres and Weltevrede 2013), as a technology that enables the gathering of “big data” about a particular subject or event. It is also important to highlight the role through which Actor-Network Theory (Latour 1996) can contextualise this method as it “reconfigure[s] the relations between subjects, objects, methods and techniques of social research” (Marres and Weltevrede 2013), and thus understanding the networks, threads and connections between users as just as important as the users themselves.
However, we also want to acknowledge the limitations of this method and the problems that might surround it — this research is merely a short introduction to both the #freebritney movement as a digital native activist group and social media research as means to understanding social movements themselves. With this in mind, we reiterate Venturini et al (2018) prompt to stay critical to social media research, as data flows and logic are still tied to the platforms as “gatekeepers of their traceability”.
As an attempt to follow the possibilities for being “methodologically inventive and re-using this information for purposes other than those which were originally intended” (Venturini et al 2018), this research made use of Twint, a Python module that is capable of scraping data without the use of Twitter’s API and thus attempts to subvert certain official API rules and limitations. The queries searched were ‘#freebritney’ and ‘britney conspiracy’. #FreeBritney forms the core of the movement, and much of the online activity, speculation and content falls under this hashtag. The term ‘britney conspiracy’, on the other hand, provides another perspective on what the Twitter-sphere was like during this time, as not all supporters used the main hashtag.
A textual analysis of the Tweets’ content was conducted, with questions surrounding the methods employed by users to contribute to the development of the movement. Through collecting data focused around days where Britney posted on Instagram, we were also able to map the fans’ theories on Britney’s posts and actions.
Challenges and limitations that come with data collection and analysis — as well as with this research — may question the kinds of historical data that can and will be scraped by the application, the relevance and representativeness of data collected and the ethical considerations that come with scraping and presenting data in order to protect the individual. (Clark-Parsons and Lingel 2020)
Most of the posts published by Britney under her fans’ scrutiny are types of selfies, with captions that are either just emojis following a series of very similar pictures, confusing sentences using a lot of exclamation marks, a row of emojis, or “inspirational quotes”:
These mysterious, internet “inspirational” captions trigger even more fan theories, as the pictures themselves don’t vary much overall. But fans don’t need complicated quotes — internet language and vernaculars are here exposed by how three rose emojis, or three kiss emojis for instance, are decoded into “SOS” messages: associating colours, spacing, shapes.
We can see by the Instagram comments that fans also interact with each other in unlocking theories, showing how #freebritney indeed built a network that goes beyond one-to-many communication and reiterates fandom as a platform in which connections are made not only with the “idol”, but amongst the fans themselves. Small details are picked up about a background object, reflections in her eyes or type of clothing, but also travel across platforms — theories are taken from her Instagram comments to form Tweet threads.
By using Twitter as a protest and political space and increasing engagement with the movement in various ways, fans pushed for the termination of the conservatorship. An overview of the Tweets collected during the selected time-frame reveal the sentiments and reactions of users in relation to the theories and “conspiracies” that other fans came up with, and similarly to Instagram, citing Britney’s usage of symbolism, colours and cultural references to signal for help.
The queries #freebritney and ‘britney conspiracy’ both returned a very diverse range of tweets. Tweets under the #freebritney query aimed at rallying support for the cause and discussions of Britney, the conservatorship and the development of the movement; while tweets under the ‘britney conspiracy’ query overall revolved around proving the existence and legitimacy of the “hidden theories” rather than supporting the movement itself.
Because of this, the data can be roughly defined into five categories, that connect over the three months:
One aspect of the data that was particularly interesting was the way users interacted with each other and with more public figures on Twitter in order to get their attention and encourage them to speak out about Britney’s conservatorship. Some users mentioned specific individuals such as Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Mariah Caery and Lady Gaga, while others mentioned other platforms such as Netflix. On the other hand, mainstream media channels started to publish articles around the movement in August, which was noticed by users who commented on the shift in narrative around the movement. From the data under the ‘britney conspiracy’ query, we can see that activity around the content of Britney’s posts seems to be concentrated in August, which coincides with the timing of when mainstream media started to cover the movement in more detail.
Discussion & Conclusion
Although users’ interactions vary on Instagram and Twitter due to its specific affordances such as the retweet button on Twitter, we are still able to observe the interconnectivity between users and the way in which they built a network shaped around #FreeBritney. On Instagram, our analysis mainly focused on the reactions of users and the theories that they derived from visual and textual clues that Britney left in her posts, while on Twitter the scope expanded to encompass not only reactions to Britney’s content, but the movement as a whole and the related topics within it.
Twitter, as a network “shaped by heterogeneous techno-cultural and political-economic relations” (Poell 2014) that enables and encourages participation, allows for users to conduct various activities that increase engagement with a particular topic. From ‘lurkers’ (more passive forms of use) to commentators and re-tweeters, diverse forms of interaction where users who are part of the in-group (fans of Britney) and out-group are able to weigh-in on the events and content circulating online. Fans and users alike employed different means of engagement with the #FreeBritney tag in order to get it to trend on Twitter, including sharing petitions, replying to posts, and embedding different links and media in their own posts — this allowed the hashtag to gain its virality and popularity. The hashtag dimension of this social movement grew across platforms and even into the streets — the mobilisation of supporters can be attributed to it, as much of the activity on various social media fell under #FreeBritney, with even Britney herself also using it recently. #FreeBritney represents a “hashtag public” (Bruns and Burgess 2011) transcending the ‘borders’ of different social platforms with the “potential to organize new structures of discussion” (Rambukkana 2013).
We consider studying vernacular practises and uses of online spaces, like forms of digital activism, of particular importance, since it not only contradicts the top-down approaches and relationships between the platforms and the users, but highlights the way users can reclaim agency over their digital spaces and communities: in their own way and inside the platform affordances, Britney fans were “reject[ing] the obligation to observe the strictures of the dominant imaginary as defined by mainstream platforms” (de Zeeuw & Tuters 2020).
Returning to our research question, we propose that the Britney fandom made use different platforms (namely Instagram and Twitter) and their various functionalities to disseminate content and start discussions about Britney’s welfare through theories and speculations about her Instagram posts — and in the process, building a participatory network with different actors and media that helped to pursue the termination of Britney’s conservatorship. The traction this movement gained online enabled it to enter more mainstream news and media, which led to the publication of several documentaries about Britney, Netflix’s ‘Britney vs. Spears’ (2021), The New York Times’ ‘Framing Britney Spears’ (2021) and Hulu’s ‘Controlling Britney Spears’ (2021). This raises the question of whether “social media [would] allow activists to plug their message into the mainstream news” (Poell 2014, 718), which is a topic of interest for academics, and this social movement is a demonstration that social media does have the power to “change the flow of public communication” (Poell 718).
Yet, while the #FreeBritney movement gained so much attention in the span of two years, it has been around since 2008. Furthermore, there are many other activist movements circulating online that have not been able to garner enough popularity or virality to move the masses online. The examination of fan activism reveals its relevance in that it opens up questions not only about how fans can organize themselves in order to push for their own agenda, but also about the role a celebrity can play in encouraging their fans to take action for a particular activist or philanthropic movement (Lucy 2014). This raises the question of how activism is going to be carried out in the future: is becoming viral something that will have to play a large part in the direction of organised action?
Bennett, Lucy. “‘If We Stick Together We Can Do Anything’: Lady Gaga Fandom, Philanthropy and Activism through Social Media.” Celebrity Studies, vol. 5, no. 1-2, Routledge, 2014, pp. 138–52, doi:10.1080/19392397.2013.813778. https://www-tandfonline-com.proxy.uba.uva.nl/doi/pdf/10.1080/19392397.2013.813778?needAccess=true
Berkowitz, Ben. 2011. “From a Single Hashtag, a Protest Circled the World”. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-wallstreet-protests-social-idUSTRE79G6E420111018
Bowenbank, Starr. 2020. “Beyoncé Made a Statement About Ending SARS as Nigeria Continues to Protest.” Cosmopolitan. https://www.cosmopolitan.com/entertainment/celebs/a34437882/beyonce-end-sars-nigeria-protest-statement/
Bruns, Axel & Burgess, Jean. 2011 “The Use of Twitter Hashtags in the Formation of Ad Hoc Publics”. https://snurb.info/files/2011/The%20Use%20of%20Twitter%20Hashtags%20in%20the%20Formation%20of%20Ad%20Hoc%20Publics%20(final).pdf
Carr, Erin Lee. director. Britney vs Spears. Netflix. 2021
Chastagner, Claude. “Mark Duffett, Ed., Popular Music Fandom. Identities, Roles and Practices: London, Routledge, 2014.” Transatlantica, no. 2, 2014, doi:10.4000/transatlantica.7203.
Chung, Siyoung. & Cho, Hichang. 2017 “Fostering Parasocial Relationships with Celebrities on Social Media: Implications for Celebrity Endorsement.” Psychology & Marketing. 34 (4), 481–495.
Clark-Parsons, Rosemary, and Jessa Lingel. 2020. “Margins as Methods, Margins as Ethics: A Feminist Framework for Studying Online Alterity.” Social Media+ Society 6 (1): 2056305120913994. https://doi-org.proxy.library.uu.nl/10.1177%2F2056305120913994
de Zeeuw, Daniël, and Marc Tuters. 2020. “The Internet Is Serious Business: on the Deep Vernacular Web and Its Discontents.” Cultural Politics 16 (2), 214–32
Guschwan, Matthew. 2016. “New Media: Online Fandom.” Soccer and Society. 17 (3), 351–371.
Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers : Television Fans & Participatory Culture. Routledge, New York
Kaun, Anne & Julie Uldam. 2018. “Digital Activism: After the Hype.” New media & Society. 20 (6)2099–2106.
Latour, Bruno. 1996. “On Actor-Network Theory: A Few Clarifications.” Soziale Welt. 47(4), 369–381.
Marres, Noortje & Weltevrede, Esther. 2013 “SCRAPING THE SOCIAL?: Issues in live social research.” Journal of cultural economy. 6 (3), 313–335.
Morozov, Evgeny. 2009. “From Slacktivism to Activism.” Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2009/09/05/from-slacktivism-to-activism/
Mudrick, Michael, Michael Miller, and David Atkin. 2016. “The Influence of Social Media on Fan Reactionary Behaviors.” Telematics and Informatics. 33 (4), 896–903.
Otávio, Daros. “Celebrity News and Cyberactivism in the #FreeBritney Fandom Movement.” Transformative Works and Cultures, vol. 36, Organization for Transformative Works, 2021. https://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/2091/2709
Poell, Thomas. 2014. “Social Media and the Transformation of Activist Communication: Exploring the Social Media Ecology of the 2010 Toronto G20 Protests.” Information, Communication & Society, 17(6), 716-731. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2013.812674
Rambukkana, Nathan. “CFP-Hashtag Publics: The Power and Politics of Networked Discourse Communities.”. Complex Singularities. 2013. 28 October 2021. http://complexsingularities.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Hashtag-Publics_CFP_new-deadline.pdf
Rolli, Byran. 2020. “BTS ARMY Matched The Group’s $1 Million Black Lives Matter Donation, Proving the Positive Power of Fandoms.” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/bryanrolli/2020/06/08/bts-army-black-lives-matter-1-million-donation/?sh=7186fc9c6465
Shah, Vivek & Sivitanides, Marcos. 2013. “The Era of Digital Activism.” Int. J. of Information Technology. 2, 295-307
Stark, Samantha. director. Framing Britney Spears. The New York Times. 2021
Stark, Samantha. director. Controlling Britney Spears. Hulu. 2021
Spears, Britney (@britneyspears). 2021. “Britney Spears Instagram post.” Instagram, June 30 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/CCEromkAg6a/
Spears, Britney (@brinteyspears). 2021. “Britney Spears Twitter post.” Twitter, October 5, 2021 https://twitter.com/britneyspears/status/1445152001814269966
Venturini, Tommaso, Liliana Bounegru, Jonathan Gray, and Richard Rogers. 2018. “A Reality Check(List) for Digital Methods.” New Media & Society. 20(11), 4195 -4217.
Link to data: