One Direction, fake babies and the problem with celebrity conspiracy theories
THIS ESSAY WAS PUBLISHED BY JUNKEE.
Last Christmas, I spent some time hanging out with a friend’s teenage daughter, a famously difficult demographic to impress.
“How about that Harry Styles, eh?” I offered.
“I don’t like One Direction,” she said, disgusted, at either me or One Direction, or maybe both. “All I know is that they have a fake baby.”
We didn’t lack for things to talk about after that. She laid it all out for me: how Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles of One Direction are secretly in a relationship, dubbed “Larry”. How Louis Tomlinson’s baby, with a woman, is fake or at least not his, and how any women seen with One Direction members are beards.
Virtual dossiers of evidence were provided. Her phone was handed over showing annotated images in increasing close-up. There were sources (YouTube, Tumblr), there were motivations (controlling managers, queerphobic society).
Her enthusiasm for this crackpot conspiracy was infectious. That’s what sucks you in, The Verge writes — the very fact that it’s “utterly insane”.
Last week, this same teenager shaved her head. A zeitgeist-perfect moment which inevitably led me to think of another excellent teenage girl, Emma Gonzalez, the spokesperson for the Parkland shooting survivors. She and her classmates have been accused of being “crisis actors” by right-wing American commentators. This theory has been promoted by Fox News, who say they’re fake victims pushing a gun-control agenda.
“What do you think about those Parkland conspiracies?” I asked my young, bald friend.
She gave me that same disgusted look.
“They’re so stupid.”
When Harmless Fun Isn’t
There are obviously differences between offensive and dangerous conspiracy theories like Parkland, and the merely ridiculous ones like Larry.
If you put them all on a scale, at the top you’d have the anti-vaxxers, the climate change denialists, the Sandy Hook hoaxers, Parkland. Then you’d move through to George Soros and the Illuminati, chemtrails, fluoride. What would be at the other end? Elvis, flat Earth, crop circles, some X-Files stuff, all the eye roll-inducing province of that guy who gets out the acoustic guitar at parties.
And then there’s the celebrity conspiracy theories. Along with Larry, this is what’s down here under the label of “harmless fun”: Meghan Markle is a high-class escort; Benedict Cumberbatch’s wife is a high-class escort; Tom Hiddleston was pretty much a high-class escort for Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift is in secret gay love with her model friend Karlie Kloss, as are two people called Lauren and Camila from something called Fifth Harmony. Kristen Stewart is still in secret heterosexual love with Robert Pattinson. Beyoncé had a fake pregnancy. Taylor Swift was fake notpregnant. And so on.
In just the same way that political motivations drive mainstream conspiracy theories, celebrity conspiracy theories morph chimerically to adapt to fans’ narrative needs. You want your celebrity to be LGBTQ, perhaps because you are too and you crave role models? Done: their girlfriend is a beard. You want your celebrity to be unattached, forever the internet’s boyfriend and so by extension, yours? Done: their marriage is a PR stunt, forced upon them.
Rob Brotherton, a psychologist speaking with Vanity Fair in 2016, called this genre of conspiracy a “sort of an intellectual exercise”:
“It’s like flexing your intellectual muscles to see what you can figure out, the most creative theory you can come up with.”
With celebrities considered fair game, these conspiracies are rewarded with the kind of breathless liberal mainstream media attention which other conspiracies down the other end of the scale can only dream of. They’re just “too juicy to ignore,” according to Seventeen magazine.
But a hierarchy of conspiracy theories is deceptive. Because it never actually matters what a conspiracy is about — whether you’re fixated on famous hot men or men in trench coats, you’re still attaching yourself to what philosopher Patrick Stokes calls “the conspiracy worldview”. It’s an outlook which “violates important norms of trust and forbearance that are central to how we relate to each other and the wider world.”
In other words, it’s the vibe. A bad vibe.
This is backed up by a Princeton University study which found that even brief exposure to conspiracy theories may “decrease pro-social tendencies” and “have negative and undesirable societal consequences”.
Jessica (not her real name), knows all about it. She’s a One Direction fan who contacted me on Twitter, and who at one time had thousands of followers for her Larry-driven Instagram account. She says there’s a line between the harmless act of “shipping” celebrities — positioning them in a fantasy relationship in your mind or in fanfiction — and believing a conspiracy about them.
She says her conviction that media and management were covering up Larry “changed the way I approached everything in my life”. She became distrustful of others, while simultaneously believing she had a direct line to the One Direction members.
“When you believe that you know these celebrities you feel like you’re unstoppable. It’s a rush you have. You know them better than the average fan. I genuinely thought I was the smart one who knew better than anyone who thought differently. I thought that they were just too stupid to see what I saw.”
This superior attitude, Jessica says, “starts to mess with individuals to a point where bullying and harassment means nothing to them. They believe it is okay since they’re doing it for the ‘right’ reasons. Some of these people genuinely believe that these celebrities will seek them out and thank them for seeing that their girlfriends were fake.
“They don’t care if they’re sending threats to the 12-year-old sister of a celebrity for loving her one-year-old nephew,” which is what actually happened to Louis Tomlinson’s younger sister, who was called a “homophobic little bitch” on Instagram for posting a photo of the contested baby. “And they don’t care that they’re harassing a university because they believe one of their students is a celebrity’s fake girlfriend,” which is what actually happened to Tomlinson’s contested girlfriend Eleanor Calder.
“You live and breathe the made-up relationship. People forget to be human beings, they just turn into monsters.”
This is not just an obsessed teenage girl thing. Spend some time online in the Benedict Cumberbatch fandom, and you’ll discover you can admire the actor’s highbrow performance in Parade’s End, praise his sensitive portrayal of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, and then call his wife a whore.
Despite Cumberbatch being the thinking woman’s crumpet, a subset of Cumber-conspiracists calling themselves “skeptics” believe that his wife — theatre director and lover of evening dresses with pockets, Sophie Hunter — is a high-class escort. As it seems unlikely that any escort, high-class or otherwise, would agree to a booking which includes two pregnancies, they’ve had to double-down by saying the children are fake too.
They have spent years harassing his wife and anyone who wanders unsuspectingly into their path. Cumberbatch has called it “obsessive, deluded, really scary behaviour”.
Really Scary, Totally Woke
Just as there are activists pushing back on alternative facts and fake news in our post-truth “real” world, there are fandom activists fighting against the multiplication of fake babies in the online world.
Annie (not her real name) is one of them. She runs a Tumblr and associated YouTube channel called Shit Larries Say which debunks the Larries’ increasingly complex conspiracy theories, and also provides an anonymous outlet for ex-Larries to share their experiences of leaving the cult-like conspiracy behind them.
Not coincidentally, Annie developed an interest in taking on the Larries during the 2016 US Presidential election.
“Seeing all the conspiracy theories which were happening around the country at that time was terrifying to me,” she says via phone interview. “I thought, ‘We need to get these people to use logic again!’ I thought perhaps by delving into the One Direction fandom, if I could ‘cure’ them of their conspiracy theory-thinking, then maybe I could replicate it outside the fandom.”
She pauses. The exhausted pause of someone remembering how they felt in 2016.
“It’s proving to be very difficult.”
The Parkland conspiracy theorists, she says, “truly remind” her of Larries. They similarly refuse to believe in coincidences, and search for patterns of intentionality in what is really just the “chaos of life”.
She is quick to point out, however, that Larries would almost certainly not believe nor propagate the Parkland conspiracies themselves, and when I ask Annie if Larries would generally be Trump supporters, she’s emphatic:
“No way! They’re almost all feminists and LGBTQ+ advocates. If you call them birthers” — in reference to Larries’ demands to see the birth certificate of Louis Tomlinson’s fake baby — “then they get very angry.”
These progressive young women who reject politically-motivated conspiracies in the real world are wholeheartedly embracing them when they come dressed in sheep’s clothing, or in in this case, tight trousers.
This is what exasperates Annie the most: the rhetoric of the conservative right has been siphoned into the rainbow flag-festooned Instagram feeds and Tumblr dashboards of otherwise thoughtful and broad-minded women. Just replace “crisis actors” with “fake babies”.
You’ll find this conspiratorial thinking happily inserted between posts touting inclusiveness, supporting #MeToo and advocating resistance to Trump. In a way, the conspiracies are camouflaged by purporting to call out heteronormativity, and the money-hungry, managerial powers-that-be.
In one of Annie’s video confessions, an ex-Larry calls the conspiracy theorists “no better than Trump voters”, even if they’re waving the flag for same-sex rights. She admits that as a One Direction conspiracy theorist, she engaged in incredibly misogynistic behaviour, things she’s ashamed of now.
“You can love an idea so much you can lose your humanity in trying to uphold that belief,” she says.
This Is Why We Can’t Have Fun Things
Ever since Jimmy Fallon ruffled Trump’s hair, nothing has seemed too innocuous to dismiss. A cartoon frog became racist. A Reddit thread led directly to a shooting in a pizza shop. A meme about the earth being flat blew into a full-blown conspiracy theory. Some sexually-frustrated white guys looking for friends on the Internet revived Nazism.
Maybe the escapism of celebrity conspiracy was fun once (“Who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory?” read The Hollywood Reporter’s extremely 2016 take on Hiddleswift). Maybe it seemed to offer fans “unprecedented agency” to create their own empowering media narratives, but here, right now, it does feel awfully close to ideology.
This is what keeps Annie up at night, spending hours after work making videos and debunking the latest theories doing the rounds. She says her critics accuse her of trying to “stomp out the fun” in the One Direction fandom, so I ask her why she doesn’t redirect her focus to other, more political, conspiracies.
“I believe in the power of fandom,” she says. “One Direction is the first fandom for so many young women, and because it has been so damaged from the beginning by the conspiracy theories, these fans have been exposed to all this horrible stuff.”
“I want to fix that,” she says. “They should feel a strength in being a woman.”
There’s no way she can fix it alone, but Annie and people like her are making progress. It’s almost possible to imagine the power of fandom used to oppose conspiracy instead of stoke it. What a power that would be.