When Systemic Hatred of Women Online Goes Unnoticed, What Does it Say About Us?
DISCLAIMER: This article is intended for educational and research purposes only. It has been published to shed light and correct understanding on the escalating issue of hatred of women online. By extension, this article also aims to inform readers on right-leaning and left-leaning internet hive minds and their negative influence on culture, politics, and society.
T/W: This article contains mentions of sexual assault, violence against women, suicide, incest, racism, anti-semitism, sexism
If you’re a woman who is active in an online, women-dominated fandom space, then you’re well aware of everything this article is about to tell you.
You’ve read every death threat.
You’ve gone through the sometimes graphic — but always malicious — anonymous message or tweet explaining every way in which some person you’ll never know would like to harm you.
You may have been banned from a fan forum or had your messages wiped from a Discord channel by a bot or mod who decided that your thoughts and your words as a woman were not allowed around here.
You’ll probably remember all the times your sexual identity, your race, or your religious affiliation was questioned and erased.
You have read every time the latest hive mind online has labeled you a sexist. A racist. An abuse apologist. A school shooter. An inbred. A Nazi. A mental case. Inhuman.
You probably know somebody whose had their information put up on Reddit threads or 4chan forums or alt-right YouTube channels for everybody to see. The aim? To determine if maybe they could find ways to hurt that individual in person or — at the very least — make their life a little harder.
And of course, you know all too well that all the threats, lies, bullying, defamation, doxxing, and dehumanization is driven by the internet’s systemic fear over women enjoying media made for them, on their own terms, and on their own time.
We’ve experienced countless cycles of this outrage, ranging from comic book heroes to k-pop. One of the most recent iterations, however, is driven by a desire to see two fictional space wizards kiss in a galaxy far, far away.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with what it’s like to be a fan of “Reylo” in the Star Wars fandom, well, it looks a bit like this:
All of the screenshots, located above, catalog a small sample of the four years of hate sent to “Reylos:” fans who are interested in the canon romantic dynamic between Rey and Kylo Ren in the Star Wars sequel trilogy. These fans are predominately women.
And, no, let’s get this out of the way: These hate posts, while directed towards fans of a fictional pairing, have nothing to do with fictional characters. This hate has everything to do with policing and punishing women for collectively enjoying fiction in a way deemed incorrect by various political and social agendas. The end goal is always the same — bully these women until they become silent.
Defining a “Bullying Hive Mind:” The “Alt-Right” vs “Antis”
The ways in which bullying hive minds reach this end goal are dependent on the political alignment of the cyberbully. Either they are pursuing an agenda dictated by alt-right circles or one dictated by factions of the progressive left, both of which gained internet popularity in the early to mid 2010s.
Most people — whether it’s because you’ve kept up with the aftereffects of the 2016 election or because you’ve spent anytime on YouTube as of late — are familiar with the alt-right. This group leans male and is driven mostly by insecurity, overt misogyny, and a sense of ownership over what they think are “male-dominated spaces” being overrun by women. It’s another example of extreme conservative thinking: what was mine should stay mine and anybody who thinks differently than me needs to get out of my way.
Arguably the biggest example of alt-right hate and harassment online is Gamergate, an anti-women bullying campaign that first arose on 4chan. The movement’s aim was to push women out of gaming journalism, game design, and gaming fandom by sending death threats, rape threats, stalking women, and dehumanizing women to their peers.
The event bolstered the anger, insecurity, and sexism of young men into an online hive mind that continues today, most notably in Gamergate’s successor “Comicsgate,” which orchestrated the attempted sabotage of Captain Marvel’s release.
These people are not hard to find. They parade their ideas on Reddit or, increasingly likely, on monetized YouTube channels. Their tactics often include spreading misinformation using false “evidence;” discrediting women’s interests by reducing them to “mental cases;” dogpiling; and doxxing.
In Star Wars fandom, this right-leaning group refers to themselves as “The Fandom Menace.” The group was created by former Comicsgate supporter Ethan Van Sciver, who goes by ComicArtistPro Secrets on YouTube. He frequently uploads videos — clickbait title and all — with common alt-right buzz words like “SJW.”
The Fandom Menace was formed in response to The Last Jedi — a more inclusive, forward-thinking addition to the Star Wars franchise that was inspired by the writings of Robert Bly, a leader in the mythopoetic men’s movement. The focus on feminine power and multiple women with complex character development and speaking roles within the film — in addition to the death of Luke Skywalker — powered this hate group to see Star Wars under Disney as “feminist propaganda.” They were driven by the belief that Disney was attempting to erase men from the Star Wars fan community. This led to several targeted hate campaigns including one that ran actress Kelly Marie Tran off of social media.
Where the alt-right works to monetize their hate through public YouTube channels, left-leaning circles are less well known to the general public. Reactionary left-leaning circles that operate within fandom spaces tend to skew younger (mostly generation-z and late millennial) and are predominantly women. They rose in 2015 with the onset of Tumblr and in response to the changing dynamics within “shipping” fandoms. For the uninitiated, “shippers” are groups of people within fandoms who center their attention around a specific relationship within that fandom (e.g. Rey and Kylo Ren).
In online spaces, this reactionary, left-leaning group is better known as “antis.” This name was given to this group after they became known for demonizing, demoralizing, and/or dehumanizing any individual in a shipping fandom who they deemed to be promoting “problematic” content through the fiction they consumed.
Anti harassment campaigns follow a consistent pattern where genuine concerns about real-world injustice are misinterpreted and applied to fictional properties in an attempt to create a 1:1 comparison and exert power over another (often marginalized) group. They start by leveraging performative accusations around real world issues such as sexism, racism, homophobia, sexual assault, and gendered violence against fictional characters deemed by the group to be representative of these problems. The guilt-by-association of these characters is then applied to the people who like these characters, and a general warning is issued: “stop supporting them, or else.”
When this accusation is ignored, it is then weaponized into bullying campaigns that aim to belittle and discredit women through dangerously shallow and irrational pearl clutching. The motivations and levels of participation in these harassment campaigns vary, but they tend to move from one large fandom to the next, focusing on whatever pop culture character will award them the most clout.
As one of the biggest current pop culture “ships,” Reylos have drawn the antis’ ire on both Twitter and Tumblr since the ship’s inception in 2015. The following accusations have been leveled against fans of these characters since 2015. These accusations include:
- That Reylos support real life abuse by wanting a romantic pairing between two characters who begin as enemies in an epic myth.
- That Reylos are racists because they support a romantic pairing between two white characters.
- That Reylos are sexist because Reylos write sexually explicit fanfiction between the “pure” heroine and the “bad guy.”
The importance of these causes and people’s ability to engage with them in good faith is recklessly diminished by blaming valid, real life concerns on women who are enjoying a fictional pair of characters from a film series. It disregards the fact that the women shipping these characters are not a homogeneous group in either their identity or their background. It erases the abuse that some shippers have experienced first-hand — -abuse they should not be forced to out on the internet in order for their shipping to be seen as socially acceptable.
When the Left Leans Right
Launching targeted harassment at any group of women celebrating an enemies-to-lovers ship won’t gain antis clout among their peers. As mentioned previously, Reylo is specifically targeted because it’s arguably the biggest ship in one of the biggest franchises in the world. This means that while Emma Watson said that the enemies-to-lovers dynamic in Beauty and the Beast is about “inclusion and love,” that classic Disney film is old and it’s been done. There is no longer a large, activated community around it, and, as such, there is little incentive to bully the women who enjoy it.
Once antis do decide to bully a ship, however, one of the main accusations leveled at followers of enemies-to-lovers ships is that what they are supporting is “dangerous” to society. To antis, symbolism and subtext in fiction are bypassed in favor of literal and often severe interpretations of a story’s greater meaning. This means that, theoretical little girls and grown women who are unable to separate fiction from reality are put at risk of harming themselves and others because of what they see in fiction.
The irony of this is that a group of mainly women confidently trying to convince other women that they must be protected from complicated romantic dynamics in fairytales is taken from a page in the American conservative playbook that is still used today. For decades, American conservatives have used popular media to scapegoat real issues in society that are easier to pass off as a consequence of the media our society consumes rather than what our society actually teaches and perpetuates.
For example: In 1948, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham began to publish magazine articles and books that claimed that comic books led to juvenile delinquency. While he had no scientific evidence, his writings caused a societal outcry that led to an investigative Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Here, conservative politicians demonized comic book writers and the comic book industry, declaring that “this country cannot afford the calculated risk involved in feeding its children, through comic books, a concentrated diet of crime, horror, and violence.”
The subcommittee eventually lead to the Comic Codes Authority — a comics industry created code that put restrictions on the art their creators could produce. The code stifled the industry for almost a decade.
Around the time the subcommittee’s investigation was coming to a close in 1955, the pearl clutching continued on television in a special news report entitled “Confidential File: Horror Comic Books!”
More propaganda video than actual news report, the narrator speaks over several young boys alone in the woods reading comic books. The narrator states:
“When I was a boy and hung with the gang we did a lot of things, we roasted potatoes, we went on expeditions, we tipped over garbage cans now and then, we wrote nasty remarks about the teacher on the sidewalk, but we never spent an afternoon sitting around like this, reading.
What a wonderful thing this would be if they were reading something worth while, something that would stimulate their desires to build and to grow. But they’re not reading anything constructive…they’re reading stories devoted to adultery, to sexual perversion, to horror, to the most despicable of crimes…
One of the wonderfully appealing things about children is that they haven’t yet come to the age where reality and unreality are divorced. The emotional impact of something they read in a comic book may be much the same as a real life situation they would witness.”
The news report goes on to show young boys stabbing trees with a knife and almost killing their friend with a rock after reading horror comic books.
This same outlandish, conservative mindset is what we see today in left-leaning anti culture. The difference now, however, is that these ideals are being regurgitated and repackaged for young girls as each generation of women gains more power within a patriarchal society.
For girls, the preoccupation is not around whether or not they will commit violence, but rather, who they will have sex with and how they will be treated as they grow within a historically male-dominated culture. The idea that women will get themselves into toxic, abusive relationships because they consume hyperbolic myths and fairytales instead of the real consequences of imposter syndrome, insecurity, and the restriction of women to explore their worth in society is no different than what conservatives said about boys in 1950s America. They asserted that boys would become violent psychopaths because they consumed multi-colored panels depicting fictional, exaggerated violence instead of the real life wars our countries waged, fear mongering on the news, or the pro-gun culture surrounding them daily. Both thought processes are damaging to the growth of our societal beliefs.
In fact, the fear and discomfort of women exploring sex within their own spaces is something that is threatening to groups on both the left and the right.
John Boyega’s New Years Eve Tweet: What Caused It and Why Did it Blow Up?
All of the screenshots above were taken within 4 days following a blow up on Twitter involving Star Wars actor John Boyega, a suspect sock puppet, and whole load of serial anti and alt-right accounts.
If you’ve been on Twitter this year, chances are you have noticed John Boyega trending. The 27-year old actor (best known for his portrayal as Resistance hero Finn in the Star Wars sequel trilogy) gained traction on Twitter New Year’s Eve when he posted a tweet of characters Rey and Kylo Ren fighting (as they do in a movie entitled, well, Star Wars) with the caption “Star Wars Romance.”
To anybody who had never touched fandom Twitter, the tweet appears harmless enough. However, the tweet was successful in doing exactly what it intended and exactly what lurking hate accounts who successfully orchestrated the bullying barrage wanted the tweet to do. It galvanized a hoard of antis and alt-right trolls and their following to — by their own admission — bully Reylos.
This particular incident began with Twitter user @crogman, a sock puppet now going by the name of @solo_sebes. The sock puppet account appeared on Twitter in mid December 2019 and quickly entrenched itself in a community of Reylos by retweeting and posting Reylo-positive tweets and joining in on post The Rise of Skywalker discourse. The account was also quick to energize antis of the Rey/Kylo dynamic.
Now that the sock puppet is embedded deeply enough into the Reylo community that somebody within that community would see controversy on their timeline between @crogman and Boyega, @crogman tweeted at the Star Wars actor, “bro you’re extremely disgusting and gross also fucking disrespectful…you cannot be this jealous of adam driver dude as a black woman im fucking ashamed that someone like you represented us in star wars.”
The comment was included with a screenshot of John Boyega on Instagram writing “@heyfabrice it’s not about who she kisses but who eventually lays the pipe. You are a genius.”
Boyega’s Instagram comment was in response to a fan suggesting that Rey (played by Daisy Ridley in The Rise of Skywalker) was now available after her canon romantic partner, Ben Solo (played by Adam Driver) died saving her life.
Boyega’s comments upset some fans on Instagram who found that his comments suggested that a woman’s worth in romantic relationships — fictional or not — was a prize to be won by the man who gets to have sex with her first.
The sock puppet account inflamed a situation that would likely have stayed on Instagram. While antis correctly identified that the account was fake and was indeed blackfishing, antis incorrectly claimed that the account was created by Reylos to justify a group of white women attacking Boyega on social media. Instead, the account was clearly a plant meant to goad the actor into directing hate at Reylos.
This is proven by the fact that the account under its new username attempted to instigate hate towards Boyega’s co-star Daisy Ridley in the comments of Reylos’ posts shortly after New Year’s Eve.
Shortly after @crogman’s tweet to Boyega, antis began to push common anti-Reylo accusations. This included accounts who had never actively bullied Reylos. For example, user @sxidey posted several tweets accusing Reylos of “sexualizing Rey,” “harassing John”, and giving “money to the military.”
The latter accusation is a common left-leaning talking point against Reylos who support Adam Driver (a former marine). This particular comment was a reference to a Gofundme started by Ben Solo fans on Reddit. The Gofundme is raising money for Driver’s charity, Arts in the Armed Forces.
The account, however, had only had one recent mention of Reylo two days earlier on December 28th. The account itself is also new, joining in October 2019.
It’s possible that the account is simply a new anti account on Twitter. Regardless, the listing of anti accusations against Reylos almost at the exact time of @crogman’s post reveals the motive of inciting hatred against members of the Reylo community.
Another account, @itsjoey56138220, was also inflaming the situation early on underneath @crogman’s tweet with accusations that Reylos were racist.
Unlike @sxidey, this account has a history of inciting hate against Reylos with outlandish conspiracy theories including one theory that Reylos were created by the alt right who caused “ex Twilight bitches” to make the ship popular. The account has also claimed that Reylos are racist because Reylo shippers want a “whites only romance.”
Boyega, in response to users including a sock puppet with no association to Reylo — and encouraged by anti accounts sewing seeds of hatred across Twitter — finally took to his own Twitter account to tweet:
The tweet, which currently sits at over 190k likes, caused tens of thousands of hateful, targeted tweets towards a group of fans made up predominantly of women and girls. It also resulted in several hate videos by alt-right YouTubers totaling hundreds of thousands of views, several hacked accounts, and the suicide baiting of a teenage girl.
The New Years Incident By The Numbers: How Boyega’s Tweet Set Off The Left and Alt-Right
Following Boyega’s tweet, reactionary users on both left and alt-right Twitter felt further emboldened to hate on a group of women they had been discrediting, dehumanizing, and sending death threats to for years. For myself, the event presented an opportunity, albeit an unfortunate one, to track these groups’ behaviors and quantify them. Ultimately, I had the goal to break down how these incidents are organized to hate on women, whether for purposes of clout or their desire to purge women from fandom spaces.
For this analysis, I took a sample of tweets that contained the word “Reylo” (the search pull also included its plural form “Reylos”) from December 31, 2019 (the day of Boyega’s tweet) to January 3, 2020. After cleaning the accounts to the best of my ability of “pro-Reylo” tweets, I was left with 25,012 tweets that contained negative and neutral comments about Reylos and the Reylo dynamic. I sifted manually through about 7k of these tweets to find key themes, which I verified utilizing a text mining analysis of the tweets.
I emerged being able to quantify the following key themes:
- Hate, Trolling, Cyberbullying
- Abuse, Toxicity
- Sex, Sexualized, Objectification
- Mental, Psychotic, Unhinged
“Hate” received the most individual tweets at ~2.2k tweets and received ~31.4 likes per tweet on average. Tweets containing themes “abuse” and “racism” received a slightly higher avg like count at 38.7 avg likes and 35.4 avg likes, respectively. These themes, along with tweets dealing with “sex” were all mentioned over 1k times.
What this suggests is that a smaller number of accounts with a wider reach were posting more substantive tweets with a focused agenda, while tweets containing “hate’ keywords were more likely to be lobbed out by anyone, including accounts with very little reach.
Tweets mentioning the theme of Reylo fans being “mental” cases had less tweets at 602 total tweets. This theme was pushed strongly by the alt-right circles involved as opposed to leftist circles, which dominated the conversation on Twitter. While this analysis does not focus on the alt-right’s reaction on YouTube, Twitter was used as a place to spread YouTube reactions created by notable Fandom Menace members.
Keyword Group: Hate
The “hate” keyword group quantified tweets containing any mention of trolling, cyberbullying, or hate towards Reylos. The fact that “hate” reveals itself as a top keyword provides further evidence that this event was viewed as implicit approval to bully a group of fans consisting predominantly of women. Anybody involved in sending Reylos hate were, by their own admission, the bullies and were cheering John on for “trolling” women and “putting [women] in their place.”
“Reading Reylo hate to cheer myself up”
“I don’t like Finn’s character either, but I love how John is putting Reylos in their place.”
“Seeing John Boyega troll the Reylos is the greatest way to end 2019”
The clear agenda to send hate towards a group of women and teenage girls was further validated by the fact that the incident was received positively by all sides of the political spectrum, from “progressive” antis to members of the alt-right. The members included the Fandom Menace and alt-right leader and Pizzagate supporter Jack Posobiec.
Both groups took advantage of the situation utilizing the same tactics they typically employ. The alt-right took to YouTube and Twitter to discredit women among their followers by using buzz-words such as “SJW” and “Twilight.” “Twilight” — which was mentioned 103 times in association with “Reylo” between 12/31/2019 and 1/3/2020 — is often used to describe any piece of media enjoyed predominantly by women.
The goal is to degrade women’s interests among their peers by pushing the narrative that Reylos are silly girls consistently preoccupied with the same trivial, valueless media.
Examples of tweets from the alt right include the following:
“John Boyega ripped the Reylo’s a new asshole. You haven’t seen this many acne riddled fatty Tumblr Girls lose their shit since Twilight ended.”
“My thesis: Reylos and most of these Neo Star Wars fans are just ex Twilight fans and self hating beta male cucks who attached themselves to the franchise like parasites. Next they will glom onto whatever film series is hot and continue their rot.”
“StarWars was so great before Disney. Now its plagued by psychotic Reylo fans, Tumblr freaks, representation-screeching SJWs, radical feminism activists, ex-Twilight fans, &wine-guzzling Disney-fan mothers caked Karen. &these are the people they’re now targeting for their fandom.”
On the other side of the spectrum, long-time anti accounts spearheaded the harassment of Reylo shippers, leveraging Boyega’s tweet to bombard Reylo shippers with hate messages. This included viral tweets from accounts with a history of anti behavior across multiple fandoms, along with multiple tweets from accounts with history of targeting Reylos.
For example, Twitter user @Iovestour tweeted, “oscar isaac going off about disney’s blatant homophobia & john boyega telling reylos to fuck themselves all within two weeks i love men men are my friends.” This tweet has more than 48k likes. You’ll be hard pressed, however, to find any tweets by the account past November 2019, even though the account has been active since March 2018.
All tweets made under the account’s former name “blinkapologist” have been deleted — a trait uncharacteristic of your normal Twitter user just looking to share their opinions and maybe curate the news. Past tweets (to which blinksapologists’ tweets and replies have been deleted) reveal a pattern of anti behavior including a history of going after individuals supporting fictional characters the anti finds problematic, utilizing extremist parallels to real-life events.
A reply to @Iovestour in June 2019 reveals the user had allegedly called victims of the Holocaust Nazi supporters. The accusation appears to have been said to supporters of Marvel character Wanda Maximoff.
Along with antis with history across multiple fandoms inciting hatred against Reylos, this event also revealed itself as a targeted harassment campaign due to the frequency in which some accounts tweeted at or about Reylos.
Boyega’s tweet caused some anti accounts within this sample to tweet over 50 times about Reylos in the span of 4 days including sadgeorgelucas1, who tweeted about Reylos ~100 times, drhorotiwtzfine, who tweeted about Reylos ~75 times, and saltandrockets, who tweeted about Reylos ~65 times.
This is not abnormal. Several of these top accounts were also consistently bullying Reylos. The accounts highlighted in red in the chart below are anti-Reylo accounts that were also included as mentioning Reylo frequently between December 31, 2019 to January 3, 2020. This includes once again drhorowitzfine, who has mentioned Reylo negatively ~1,150 times between 2017 to 2019. Other top anti accounts include winniethepoe1, who tweeted about Reylo ~320 times from 2018 to 2019 and ~25 times during Boyega’s New Year’s Eve incident.
Keyword Group: Abuse
Of course no harassment campaign can be waged without finding ways to make the people being bullied look like they were worth being bullied. One of the two main “arguments” thrown against Reylos included the predictable anti accusation of Rey and Kylo’s “abusive” relationship poisoning the mind’s of women and girls. Since Reylo shippers had made the decision to create transformative works and discuss a fictional romance found to be impure by the antis, Reylos could now be cyberbullied in real life for their morally reprehensible decisions.
Reylo is also referred to as “abusive” because some still try to stretch the narrative that Rey and Kylo’s relationship is incestual, and therefore Reylo’s are promoting incest.
The idea that the relationship is incestual goes back to a 2016 fan clash over who Rey’s parents were. Many fans wanted Rey to be a Skywalker or a Solo, which would make her related to Kylo Ren, the son of Leia Organa and Han Solo. The event involved Reylos being frequently lobbed with accusations of incest, and they were at one point banned from discussing Rey and Kylo’s dynamic on a popular Star Wars forum, Jedi Council Forums.
Another common theme was that Reylos were “toxic.” This theme was mostly fed by alt-right circles and originated with a post by Fandom Menace supporter Dataracer117, who has a history of harassing Reylos.
Dataracer117 has a history of voicing his contempt for Disney and their “radical feminist propaganda.” This is most notably seen in his involvement in Comicgate’s attack on Captain Marvel. This included digging up screenshots by fans of Captain Marvel who spoke out against the sexism being aimed against the film, accusing all the accounts of being “Captain Marvel bots.”
Like the Captain Marvel incident, Dataracer117 posted a tweet with screencaps that Reylos were allegedly sending death threats to JJ around the time of Boyega’s tweet. Despite Dataracer117’s history attempting to devalue women in fandom communities and despite the screencaps being debunked by the Reylo community, the screencaps gained traction around Twitter, YouTube, and in media publications including Buzzfeed. They were further used to create the narrative that Reylos are “unhinged.”
This narrative inflamed alt-right accounts, and they began to frequently frame Reylos as mental cases. Discrediting women is nothing new (in fact you can easily read about it in this essay on Western puritanical conditioning against women in the 17th century), and is to be expected from a community who dedicates their time to driving women away from their online spaces.
Keyword Group: Racism
The second accusation that was used to fuel harassment against Reylos was the claim that Reylos were racist against Boyega. They claimed that Reylos’ harassment of the actor led women to be upset with Boyega over his Instagram comment. This led to harassment on his Twitter — which remember, was started by a sock puppet account not associated with the Reylo community.
While racism is a prevalent concern that needs to be addressed within all fandom communities-and questions over inherent privilege due to one’s community are something to be examined-no support was given to back up these particular claims about the Reylo community during this incident.
This is not to say, however, that isolated incidents have not occurred outside of this specific accusation within the Reylo fandom, as they would within any large and global group of people. However, these incidents are statistically insignificant to the population of people who discuss Reylo positively on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis (which, according to the sample number of accounts who have discussed Reylo between 2015 to 2019, can be quantified at over 40k individuals. The true number is dependent on how many accounts — currently almost 70k — discuss Reylo negatively within the sample).
This particular accusation of racism has several layers to it and I would like to break them down separately
“But Reylos Read Explicit Fanfiction”
The first part of this is that the nature of Boyega’s Instagram comments allowed antis and alt-right circles to attack Reylos on NSFW fanfiction and fanart written and drawn for and by women. It also allowed antis to draw more criticism around the ways in which Reylos analyzed The Last Jedi, a film with many allusions to the writings of psychoanalytics including Sigmund Freud.
After the release of The Last Jedi, the Reylo community, who had written long form meta analysis on the Star Wars saga since 2015, wrote lengthy metas about the symbolism in the film. Much of this symbolism was reflective of Rey’s sexual awakening throughout her journey in the movie.
Antis took issue with this and saw this as “sexualizing” Rey’s character. They asserted that women exploring sexuality through the lens of a fem-gaze narrative written for women was appalling, degrading, and out of line.
For anti and alt-right circles, the Reylo community’s openness to discussing sex in Star Wars through meta, fanfiction, and fanart by women (and generally for women) meant that Reylos could not take offense to Boyega’s questionable comment that suggested to some of his fans that Rey was a sexual prize to be won. The narrative antis spun was wholly unable — and unwilling — to separate women discussing sex in their own communities as different from men offering their sexual “jokes.”
This justification for bullying Reylos felt eerily similar to “she was wearing that, she asked for it.” It’s a highly socialized sexist line of reasoning women deal with daily and one that was readily accepted in this incident.
2. “But Reylos Ship Rey With The White Character”
Since 2015, Reylos have been accused of racism on the grounds that Reylos did not prefer Rey to be in a romantic relationship with the black male protagonist. This claim is presented without any evidence to back up the accusation.
Furthermore, the people who ship Rey and Finn (known as “Finnrey”) have done little to celebrate this pairing and act as a fan community. In fact, they have consistently acted more like a group that seeks to find ways to activate hate against Reylos instead of create content for their ship.
The two data visualizations below show every user in my sample who has tweeted the word “Reylo” between 2015 to 2019 vs every user in my sample who has tweeted the word “Finnrey” between 2015 to 2019. The gray in these charts represent the number of accounts who have only ever tweeted about their own ship. The purple represents the overlap — that is the accounts who have tweeted at least once about the other ship.
The first observation is that the number of users discussing “Finnrey” is small in comparison to the number of accounts discussing “Reylo.” Finnrey was mentioned by 7,780 accounts while Reylo was mentioned by 69,484 accounts.
As mentioned, gray = accounts who have only ever tweeted about their own ship. Purple = accounts who have tweeted about at least one other ship. So, in this case, out of the ~7.8k accounts that tweeted about Finnrey, ~60% of accounts mentioned “Reylo” at least once (4,665 accounts total). This number represents only ~7% of accounts who have ever talked about Reylo.
This data is supported by other statistics comparing the two ships. For example, on fanfiction website Archive of Our Own, the fic tag for Rey/Ben Solo | Kylo Ren has ~16k fics. There are another 12k fics in the tag for Rey/Kylo Ren. The fic tag for Finn/Rey has under 2k fics.
3. “Reylos Have Bullied John Since 2015”
The most damaging false claim to come out New Year’s Eve was that Reylos had been attacking Boyega (and other Star Wars actors) with racist tweets since 2015.
It is very true that the actor has received heinous racist attacks. Most notably, the actor was attacked on social media following a #BoycottEpisodeVII hashtag that was started by two 4chan trolls in an attempt to get racist Star Wars fans to take the bait. It is well known that this hashtag was the work of racist alt-right accounts.
Since the hashtag, other attacks have been levied on Boyega. One of these attacks included a surge of outcries against him by The Fandom Menace, after a tweet posted in June 2018 stated: “If you don’t like Star Wars or the characters understand that there are decisions makers and harassing the actors/actresses will do nothing. You’re not entitled to politeness when your approach is rude. Even if you paid for a ticket!”
The Fandom Menace took the opportunity to bring their anger over Boyega’s comments to Twitter and YouTube, much like Comicsgate did when Brie Larson spoke in favor of diversity.
Reylos, however, are now being blamed for these attacks without any supporting evidence. They are also being blamed for the harassment of Kelly Marie Tran. The actress was bullied off of social media by alt-right trolls on her Instagram page, along with antis who saw her character kissing Finn as “sexual assault.”
You will not find any evidence linking the Reylos back to the targeted harassment of any Star Wars actors over the years. Predictably, however, you will find that the people who used this accusation to their advantage admitted that their own motive was bullying.
For example, Twitter user @notlipglosse tweeted “the way this man waited until he got his last star wars check so he could freely make fun of the racist stans who have bene harassing him since 2015 %@&@*!?!?!?” This tweet (at the time of the screencap) gained ~92.2k likes. A tweet posted on December 19th, however, reads “the way we’ve been bullying Reylo stans and calling them delusional and they won…,” further supports the data that this incident was about inciting hatred towards a group of fans predominately made up of women.
Another example is from user @irisckp. Shortly after Boyega’s tweet, the user tweeted “NOT THIS REYLO AND HER MUTUALS ACTING LIKE JOHN BOYEGA HAS BROUGHT SOME TYPE OF OPPRESSION WHEN HE WAS RACIALLY ABUSED BY REYLO’S FOR YEARS. HE HAD EVERY RIGHT.” Again this tweet was presented without evidence that Reylos had “racially abused” Boyega.
The tweet is referring to a livestream from a young woman in the Reylo community who candidly expressed discomfort over the false accusations and bullying. The livestream was taken by antis and used to further bully the young woman.
This bullying eventually descended into suicide baiting that resulted in the woman’s account being deleted. However, this did not stop antis from pushing the woman to kill herself. It also did not stop them from telling the teenager’s father, who had gotten involved in combating the harassment, to “live tweet your reaction when you find your daughters lifeless body dangling from her rooms ceiling fan.”
After @iriscpk’s initial tweet, the user admitted that they had “never seen Star Wars” (like a portion of antis bullying Reylos that night) and that “Reylo” is used as an umbrella term for their unsupported accusations of racism against Boyega.
The tweets again reveal that viral tweets making accusations against Reylos had no merit, and were not based in any evidence they had seen with their own eyes. These users were looking to be involved in the latest conversation despite the lack of evidence or knowledge and despite the real harm being done to the community the tweet targeted.
This supports the hive mind behavior behind this cyberbullying attack. There was no concern for any person hurt. There was no concern for the misinformation that was being spread. And there was no concern for the very real issue of racism in online spaces.
This was only ever about a group of women getting hurt and, hopefully, getting off the internet altogether.
Why This Matters and What This Means for Art and Society in The Digital Age
If you have gotten this far and you find this article absurd, you should. This much vitriolic hatred, ugliness, and anger over women analyzing and creating media for a romantic pairing in a Hollywood blockbuster is, to put it mildly, overblown. Unfortunately, it’s the reality. And it’s a reality that has even deeper repercussions if not addressed.
I wrote this article not only in a hope to correct the misinformation against a group of women in the Star Wars fandom, but also to address a larger issue of what it means when these hate campaigns are so readily accepted by the general public, by journalists, and by other fans.
The internet will continue to evolve as it already has. It will evolve into an ecosystem that will touch every single moment of our lives. It is a future that will be as brilliant as it will be terrifying and when we are so willing to demonize a group of women with no evidence but a tweet with a lot of likes, it shows that we are not prepared.
We are living in an age where art is being dictated to what a few executives read online, or what a data analyst may write up in a report. We have seen how Disney has made a movie based off of fan service easily found in Reddit threads. We have seen Paramount shift the schedule of an entire film to redesign a character after apparent outrage. We have seen Disney remove James Gunn from a major movie project following a targeted alt-right campaign to get him removed. And we have seen this with Warner Brothers choosing to green light their films using AI.
This pattern is concerning in part because we are willing to create art via algorithm. But, it’s also concerning because, unless these algorithms are properly coded and taught overtime to understand hive mind mentality, the machines that churn social listening data will be regurgitating intelligence corrupted by organized and hateful groups. These groups aim to restrict freedom of speech, diversity, and meaning in our art for the sake of political agendas laking any evidence, any substance, or any valuable goal.
I also wrote this article because it is not only our art that is at risk, but the ways in which we communicate as human beings online. The ability to see individuals — namely women — as inhuman or as less than with no second thought is something we should all understand is a problem. We have a deep inability to question what we see on our Facebook feeds, our Twitter timelines, or in our Instagram photos . We also live in an age where entire governments are being overturned by algorithms and social media ads. We are quick to blame Facebook and Cambridge Analytica and YouTube for this, and yes, while, those platforms have a responsibility of their own, we need to realize that it is our responsibility as well to always question what we see and search for evidence if it is not provided to us.
This example of bullying women in an online community is not necessarily synonymous with political elections, but it still presents yet another moment where people are failing to believe hard evidence over buzz words, sensationalized headlines, and clear, often spelled out agendas.
Until we learn not to react to everything we see, and listen to the people around us who come with facts, this type of behavior will continue, this type of behavior will get worse, and this type of behavior will impact us politically, socially, and culturally as we become more and more integrated as a digital society.
On January 10th, John Boyega posted a video to his Instagram account showing himself mocking tweets by women in the Reylo community. He did not blur out the names. These women were specifically targeted. The event created ~50k tweets continuing to bully women. Media outlets including Forbes, IGN, Cinemablend, Esquire, and The Wrap picked up the story. They all applauded the video.
In response, Reylos trended #reylolove — stories about how women in the community had positively impacted their lives.
They also created a charity event for anti-cyberbullying charity Cybersmile, which you can donate to here.
EDIT: This piece previously identified a user account that fit the criteria of suspicious activity on Twitter. The account had only 6 followers. The account had no history on Twitter until November 2019 based on data in a tool used to verify data counts for this article. And no tweets could be found on this user’s Twitter past 12/25/2019. The account, however, was created in July 2019. The suspicious activity indicated that the account was highly likely a sock puppet account who was involved in the New Year’s Eve incident alongside @crogman.
I have since received verification that this account was not suspicious from history on other social media accounts outside of their Twitter. To protect this user, all references to this user have been deleted.
I am a data analyst currently working in the XR space (augmented reality/virtual reality/spatial computing) and work daily analyzing social media data, emerging market trends, and other sources of consumer data. I previously worked on a Webby-Award winning video game research project for the Entertainment Software Association where I compiled the largest public database of active video game companies in the country, which was used to assess economic growth in the American video game market.
Methodology and Further Reading
Data Collection, Cleaning, and Analysis
Sample Twitter Data Collection and Cleaning
All data was collected using python scripts from Github that leveraged Twitter’s API. A separate tool leveraging Enterprise-level API access was used to verify data counts only. Data was pulled for research purposes and was collected in the event that it could be leveraged to defend against slander, defamation, or excessive hate or violence against the Reylo community.
All data is a sample and does not represent the population of every user who ever discussed a specific ship using any term to identify the ship (i.e. this data set is not inclusive of all tweets mentioning “reylo” OR “rey and kylo”) OR of every user who discussed a specific ship using that ship’s name only (i.e. this data set is not inclusive of all tweets mentioning “reylo”). This is for the following reasons:
- Data was collected using easily comparable search terms only. All data associated with “reylo” in this article includes only tweets mentioning “reylo” and NOT “rey and kylo.” Likewise, all data associated with “finnrey” in this article includes only tweets mentioning “finnrey” and NOT “finn and rey.” (Please note, however, that the code pulled tweets containing “reylos” and “finnreys”).
- Simple search terms were chosen to limit errors in data collection that are more likely to occur when searching for a phrase (e.g. “rey and kylo”) vs one word (e.g. “reylo”).
- In shipping circles, the ship name is commonly used over the name of the characters and it is likely to be used at least once by a member of that shipping community. This is why this article focuses more on account volume than actual tweet volume. For this reason, the ship name is justified in representing a sample of all users and tweets discussing the ship within the given time frame.
- Data does not include tweets from locked accounts or tweets that have been deleted at the time of the data pull.
This analysis leveraged three datasets: 1) a historical sample of Twitter data where search term = “reylo” and where time period = 12/23/2015 to 12/28/2019 (total sample set = 433,210 tweets); 2) a historical sample of Twitter data where search term = “finnrey” and where time period = 12/23/2015 to 12/28/2019 (total sample set = 25,505 tweets); and 3) a sample of Twitter data where search term = “reylo” and where time period = 12/31/2019 to 1/3/2020 (total sample set = ~48,000 tweets before cleaning. The sample set utilized in this article totaled 25,012 tweets).
Data for the sample set assessing tweets mentioning “reylo” between 12/31/2019 to 1/3/2020 was cleaned by matching usernames via a VLOOKUP with pro-Reylo account followers. These follower lists were mostly gathered manually. Accounts were also deleted based on keywords commonly used by pro-Reylo accounts including “#BenSoloDeservesBetter,” #BenSolo,” “Ben Solo,” “#BenSoloDeservedBetter,” “canon,” “antis,” “uwu,” and “force bond.”
All historical data pulls occurred over non-consecutive intervals. Data was matched after each pull to remove duplicates. Data was also cleaned for any large bot accounts. Excluded accounts include @botreylo (30,459 tweets) and @whyshipreylo (7,638 tweets).
To avoid major data discrepancies during periods where mention volume was higher (e.g. after a Star Wars film release), I triangulated the numbers in the data set in the following ways:
- Tweet volume was verified using a social-listening tool with Enterprise-level API access. This tool was used to verify the number of tweets only to make sure the sample was representative of the population. No data from this tool is visualized in this article.
- Tweet volume was matched with other fandom metrics such as number of fanfictions created on fanfic website Archive of Our Own to verify activity of the Finnrey and Reylo shipping communities, respectively (links are in the article).
- Tweet volume was matched with other publicly accessible trend metrics including Google Trend data. When comparing the search terms for “Reylo” vs “Finnrey” in worldwide Google Trends, the data is similar to the trend of the Twitter data visualized earlier on in this article with spikes following the release of The Last Jedi in December 2017 and The Rise of Skywalker in December 2019.
All data was analyzed and visualized in Excel and Tableau. Data sets were matched utilizing simple VLOOKUP functions between data sources.
Major themes from the data were collected after manually reading a random sample of about 7k tweets. This allowed me to gain context and understand the ways in which top themes and terms were being used.
The major themes were verified in a text mining analysis in R using the libraries (library (tm)), (library(stringr)) and (library(wordcloud)). Words were removed from the analysis including all stop words and “John,” “Boyega,” “Star,” “Wars,” “Reylos,” “Reylo,” “Twitter,” “Youtube,” “Instagram, “Rey,” “www,” “com” and “https.”
The word cloud above includes all words mentioned a minimum of 250 times. Counts for specific words of interest are as follows:
The “keyword groups” were created using a combination of my manual analysis and the texting mining completed in R. They were assembled after using common words that appeared within my manual analysis most frequently. Total mentions from each keyword group were determined using the SUMPRODUCT function. The keyword groups to determine the total number of mentions featured in this article are as follows:
Mental=[mental, manic, bedlam, satanism, sickness, disease, idiotic, loony, sociopath, lunatic, psychopath, insane, asylum, unhinged, crazy, nuts]
Racism=[racist, racism, black, racially, racial]
SJW=[SJW, progressive, liberal, leftist, woke, Antifa]
Sex=[porn, porno, erotica, sexualization, objectification, sexual, sexuality, horny, racy, smut, lust, sex]
Hate=[troll, trolling, bully, bullying, tears, crying, therapy, pain, cry, hate, hating] (Note: “harassing” and “harassment” were omitted since they were typically associated with reylos “harassing” Boyega rather than Boyega/antis “harassing” Reylos)
Abuse=[abuse, abusive, toxic, rape]
Screenshots were collected from the following sources:
- My own saved files of screenshots taken overtime between 2017 to 2019.
- Twitter Advanced Search found utilizing phrases from tweets and usernames found within data sets.
- Twitter Advanced Search found testing specific search phrases.
- Outside parties provided additional screenshots from 2016 to 2019 from Tumblr and Twitter corroborating the data and analysis.
- Screenshots found from other Reylo accounts that were posted between 2018 to 2019 to Twitter from Tumblr and Twitter.
EDIT: There has been confusion surrounding which names were redacted vs which usernames were kept in this article so I am expanding upon my methodology here.
Twitter is a public platform and all tweets can be easily identified within a native search tool. That being said, redacting names is best practice and I followed that practice with the following exceptions:
- The username was essential to show patterns between the data sets (e.g. accounts that were considered “top accounts” across both the Dec 2015–2019 data set and the Dec 2019-Jan 2020 data set). This was to show the validity of the data and allow this methodology to be replicated.
- The username was essential to show patterns overtime. For example, certain usernames were revealed to show participation in multiple online incidents targeted towards women.
- The username could be used as an example of the reach of the harassment (e.g. verified accounts, who typically have a larger follower base)
“Acceptance of Self, the Female Gaze, and Removing Myth from Man: Thoughts on The Last Jedi” by Jessica (known online as Saturnine Stardust)
“Reylo, a Manifesto (or why we need to stop letting people define us as “just a ‘ship”)” by Nat (known online as ashesforfoxes)
“Reylo, A manifesto Pt II: Welcome to the Rollercoaster Ride to Hell” by Nat (known online as ashesforfoxes)
“The Life of Female Fans” by Women of the Whills