Hero worship: Fans can’t help but defend their favorite celebrities after ‘immoral acts’

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — We all have people we look up to and support. While it’s never fun to find out a beloved public figure has done wrong, just how much does personal fandom influence how such transgressions are perceived among the public? New research from the University of Cambridge reports that the more that people express admiration for a public figure, the more likely they are to forgive and defend them after a “moral violation.”

There are countless examples of this tendency. For instance, Johnny Depp has been the subject of seemingly endless bad publicity and legal disputes in recent years, but a large portion of his fanbase remains as dedicated as ever, defending Depp’s alleged actions no matter how eyebrow-raising.

For this project, study authors chose to focus on another well-known public figure who has run into controversy in recent years: social media sensation Logan Paul. Posts from 36,464 of Paul’s YouTube followers were analyzed for this study. All in all, the study concludes we tend to “resist updating our beliefs” about those we publicly support, even if they’ve committed acts that are morally reprehensible.

More specifically, researchers focused on fan reaction both before and after Paul infamously filmed and then posted footage of a dead body in Japan’s Aokigahara forest (known as a ‘suicide site’). Even worse, Paul and his friends make insensitive jokes in the video. When that footage was first released online back in 2017, Logan Paul had over 15 million YouTube subscribers. The suicide forest video led to major backlash against Paul, despite a public apology just two days later.

How researchers used Logan Paul’s YouTube mess for their study

The research team utilized language-processing algorithms to assess the level of “moral emotions,” ranging from anger or disgust to adoration, posted by Paul’s YouTube followers during the scandal. A “concept dictionary,” or list of words linked to various emotions like love or forgiveness was used to scan user commentary on seven Logan Paul videos from before the scandal, and posts from the exact same followers on his apology video following the onset of the scandal.

According to study authors, this unique approach allowed them to account for slang terms used by many followers, such as “logang4life”: a phrase used by Paul’s especially devoted fans to show their allegiance.

“Imagine a celebrity or a politician you greatly admire does something you consider deeply immoral and repugnant. Would you stand by them?” says lead author Simon Karg, who conducted the work while at the Cambridge Body, Mind and Behavior Laboratory, in a statement. “We can see that people often keep holding on to a positive character evaluation even when the admired person commits a severe transgression. The more important the person has been to us, the less likely we are willing to change our favorable opinion,”

“People often use celebrities in the construction of their social identity. A threat to the standing of a public figure can be perceived by fans as a threat to their own self-identity – something we may feel compelled to defend,” adds senior study author Cambridge social psychologist Prof. Simone Schnall.

‘Fervent supporters will readily excuse deplorable actions by their heroes’

Earlier studies focusing on how people judge moral character have been limited by small subject groups, lab-based settings, and hypothetical scenarios. By analyzing a real celebrity who dealt with a real scandal, researchers were able to investigate thousands of reactions to a “real life” scandal of moral transgression.

All in all, 77 percent of YouTube users who had left comments on a Logan Paul video before the scandal continued to support him after the forest video was uploaded. Only 16 percent expressed anger and a mere four percent expressed disgust after Paul mocked the suicide victim.

Moreover, the team at Cambridge investigated the link between pre-scandal attitudes and post-scandal messages of support across individual social media accounts. YouTube users known to frequently post positive comments on Paul’s videos were deemed 12 percent more likely to keep supporting him publicly even after the suicide forest video was posted. Similarly, those known to post positively using Logan Paul fan language, considered an expression of “social identity,” were also 10 percent more likely to keep supporting Paul.

Online behavior among fans predicted more than just post-scandal support. For every single Logan Paul YouTube video a user commented on, their chances of displaying “adoration” toward Paul after the scandal increased by four percent. Conversely, for every comment posted pre-scandal, users were deemed five percent less likely to express anger, and nine percent less likely to display disgust after the forest video went live.

“High levels of online approval only led to the entrenchment of support when fans were suddenly faced with extremely negative information about their hero,” notes Karg, who is now at Aarhus University. “There are numerous examples of celebrities and politicians acting in less than ideal ways without much backlash from devoted partisans. It seems that fervent supporters will readily excuse deplorable actions by their heroes. The question is whether anything can break this spell of commitment,” he concludes.

The study is published in Social Psychological Bulletin.

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