The consequences of anonymity in online spaces: A quick dive into toxic fandom spaces

Online fandom spaces

Figure 1. Fandoms Unite (Peters, 2016)

Ah, yes. Online fandom spaces. Surely you are in one yourself, have been in one, and if not, have at least heard of the more popular ones. If you haven’t, that’s completely fine – I’m here to briefly explain to you what these spaces are, and how they relate to the topic at hand.

Online fandom spaces have been around as early as the 1970s, and as the adoption of the internet increases, so has fan culture (Pattison, 2024). These spaces have only been increasing as more TV shows, anime and music groups are being churned out each year. They’re a great way to find people you can connect with; from Tumblr to Twitter to YouTube to fanfiction sites where fans create stories of their favourite shows and such, you are bound to find spaces where your interests are extensively talked about by fans alike.

In saying that, fandom spaces comprise of many types of fans; some of whom are amazing, and some of whom are… A little unhinged, and perhaps downright rude and without any sort of a filter. I’m sure you’ve come across such people before if you’re someone who frequents any sort of fandom spaces. If you haven’t before, then consider yourself a winner of the Golden Ticket for Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory because a genuine question for you lucky ones: How?

Because I have, and spoiler alert: They are not fun to come across, or to deal with. There will always be some fans who act like they can say whatever they want because they’ve got a pseudonym and a computer to hide behind (more on this later).

Flew (2021, p. 94) makes an important observation when he says, “Reasons for online harassment featured political or religious beliefs, physical appearance, race or ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.” Now, while freedom of speech is important, there is a point when there are some types of speech that should be properly regulated, especially if it does more harm than good and does not contribute anything useful to the overall conversations on certain topics. In this case, hate speech is one of them. Which is why, as Flew (2021) questions: How can we balance freedom of expression and minimise censorship while implementing legal sanctions against hate speech and online abuse?

It is a hard thing to balance, as we do not want to over-regulate speech online, but we also want to minimise online abuse as much as possible. There is also a fine line between what is hate speech and what is not, especially when it comes to cases where the abuse may come off as more subtle. Some people may think what’s being said is genuinely okay, while others may interpret it differently.

Anonymity and pseudonyms contributing to widespread online abuse

Figure 2. Anon avatar on Tumblr (unwrapping, 2013)

Now, just imagine this: You’re going about your day, happy as can be. You’re browsing through your Tumblr account which has accumulated a massive number of followers. You receive an ask, which has become the norm for you. You click on your inbox, excited to see what it’s about… And then you come across someone who’s called “Anonymous”, telling you how annoying you are and how you should delete your account. Oh, and go stuff up your life while you’re at it, why don’t you? No one cares about you, anyway.

This is the first time you’ve received something so rude, from someone you don’t even know, and because they’ve conveniently hidden themselves behind the wall of anonymity, you can’t really fight back.


Day ruined, ego bruised; you take that comment personally because how can you not? And you end up being very cautious about the next asks you receive.

Yes, maybe receiving more of these types of comments may “help you grow a thicker skin” as time progresses on, but that doesn’t make the action of spreading online hate any more okay.

Kilvington (2021, p. 261) brings up the fact that “Anonymity is widely regarded as a determining factor in online hate speech. Online users have the ability to create fake accounts, or adopt pseudonyms which acts as a form of identity disguise which encourages disinhibition.”

In other words: Anonymity and the use of pseudonyms provides people an opportunity to say things they wouldn’t usually say in real life, simply because they have pseudonyms and a keyboard to hide behind. I would imagine if people had to attach their real names and have some sort of self-identification in order to access such spaces, there would be a noticeable reduction in online abuse and hate speech – especially when it comes to fandom spaces (barring the fact that this could become a privacy and freedom of speech and focusing purely on just the online abuse aspect).  

The principle of “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it at all” is largely (and concernedly so) ignored in online spaces, simply because people can show as little of their identity as possible to peruse these spaces when interacting with other people.

With that being said, Suler (as cited in Klivington, 2021, p. 261) points out that giving people the ability to be anonymous on the internet “encourages users to manipulate online expressions, view the Internet as a space where offline social norms do not apply, and take online interactions less seriously.” Brown (as cited in Klivington, 2021, p. 261) says that the perception of having the veil of anonymity on the internet encourages people to be hateful and obnoxious to other users. Going back to Suler (as cited in Klivington, 2021, p. 261), they say anonymity means users are more emboldened to act out since they are able to separate their online persona from their in real life lifestyle and identity.  

Klivington (2021) goes on to talk about how invisibility and dissociative imagination contribute to the phenomenon of online abuse, and how it enables these actions. In a way, they do tie in with the concept of anonymity.

Hiding behind a wall of anonymity to abuse someone is a cowardly move either way, and doesn’t contribute to healthy conversations in any way shape or form, which is why regulation of online speech is important – but how can you regulate hate speech without making it seem like your intent is trying to take away the freedom of speech?

Case Study: aespa’s Karina and actor Lee Jaewook breaking up because of hate comments

Figure 3. Lee Jaewook and aespa’s Karina confirmed to be dating (Soompi, 2024)

Now, let’s have a bit of an intermission here before we go on to talk about the moderation of online behaviour.

If you’ve perused the internet in any sort of capacity, at any point in time, you have probably come across the unhinged behaviour some people exhibit. In this case, it’s from people who are a part of the online fandom space; people who call themselves fans of certain medias, groups… You name it.

If you’re a part of the “Kpop fandom”, you might have heard of recent dating confirmation news, followed by a confirmed break up between aespa’s Karina and Korean actor, Lee Jaewook… All of which happened in the timeframe of five weeks.

So the timeline goes like this:

  • 1. They are confirmed to be dating on the 27th of February (Soompi, 2024).
  • 2. The hate comments start pouring in. On the 29th of February, “Lee Jaewook’s agency C-JeS Studios announced that legal action will be taken for malicious posts that have been written about the actor following the recent news of his relationship with aespa’s Karina” (Soompi, 2024).
  • 3. Even with the threat of legal action looming on the horizon, that clearly does not deter the hate comments from a lot of “fans”, because on the 5th of March, aespa’s Karina uploads a handwritten letter to her personal Instagram (it has since been deleted, but there are still screenshots of it floating online), apologising… For dating someone. (Refer to Figure 4.)
  • 4. Korean netizens react to this, and some voice their distaste and embarrassment over how the news had reached Western media outlets (Allkpop, 2024), and how the fans that made her feel the need to apologise for simply dating someone is only making the toxic fandom culture worse.
  • 5. On the 2nd of April, it was reported that Karina and Lee Jaewook had officially broken up. Ng (2024) from BBC News explained in the article that fans had accused Karina of “betrayal”, which prompted an apology from the idol herself. Fans also drove a “protest truck” to her management agency (SM Entertainment) when the news came out, where the electronic billboard says, “Is the love given to you by your fans not enough?” Threats were also made in the form of “decrease in album sales” and “empty concert seats” by one of the fans (Salvoni, 2024). (Refer to Figure 5).

Figure 4. Screenshot of Karina’s apology letter (Allkpop, 2024)
Figure 5. Billboard outside SM Entertainment to protest the relationship between Karina and Lee Jaewook (Koreaboo, 2024)

It took approximately five weeks for the online abuse to break apart a relationship between two relatively well known figures. Ng (2024) goes on to state that days before, “South Korean actors Han So-hee and Ryu Jun-yeol had also announced that they have separated – just two weeks after publicly acknowledging their relationship.” These two are few of the many cases that have happened where fans have broken up relationships, by way of online abuse.

This speaks to the toxic parasocial relationships formed between fans and celebrities, where fans think they have the rights to dictate what a celebrity does, which can often lead to online abuse as shown in this case study.

Attached below are examples of the hate comments made by the Karina fans, under Lee Jaewook’s Instagram posts.

Figure 6. Lee Jaewook’s Instagram post, where fans of Karina flood his comment section with hate comments

Speaking to how anonymity can foster online abuse, upon clicking on some of the profiles, you are lead to an empty Instagram page, where no personal details about the users are found. Platforms like Instagram doesn’t make it necessary for you to use your real name, so it’s easy to make a fake account and comment things like that on people’s posts and be able to get away with it.

Content moderation… In moderation

As Woods and Perrin (2021, p. 93) state, “Around the world, governments are starting to consider regulation amidst significant and growing user concern about harmful conduct and behaviours.”

They go on to outline the system approach for online harms, published on the Carnegie UK Trust website, and how it has two aspects to it:

  • 1. The platform (software system and business system) should be the focus and;
  • 2. Risk management should be the primary required response from the operators.

Woods and Perrin (2021, p. 105) highlight that “The key is the systemic approach; that is the shift from a focus on specific items of content and a move to risk management approach”.

Thing is, while moderation is important, when it comes to moderating matters like hate speech, they also coexist with the right to freedom of expression, as Flew (2021, p. 94) points out. Moderation may cause conflicts with Article 19 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Figure 7. Article 19 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, n.d.)

Flew (2021, p. 94) also points out that “This prompts the familiar question of how to balance the competing principles of promoting freedom of expression and minimising censorship on the one hand, and having effective legal sanctions against hate speech and online abuse on the other.”


As we can see, online abuse has become a part of internet culture these days, which isn’t very pleasant at all to think about. Someone close to you might have experienced it; you yourself might have experienced it in some shape or form.

Another point is that online abuse can stem from toxic fandom cultures and the parasocial relationships formed between the fans and the celebrities involved, as seen in the case study of aespa’s Karina and actor Lee Jaewook’s breakup.

Moderation on platforms is definitely going to be needed in regard to this matter, but again, that brings in the question of how that’s going to interfere with free speech. It seems there has to be a balance between moderation of online abuse, while also making sure users don’t feel like their freedom of speech is being impeded on – and from the looks of it, it seems like it’s going to be ongoing battle.


Flew, Terry. (2021). Regulating Platforms. Cambridge: Polity.

Ha, S. (2024, March 7). “This is so embarrassing,”  Korean netizens react to Western media outlets reporting about Karina’s apology over her dating news. AllKpop.

Kilvington, D. (2021). The virtual stages of hate: Using Goffman’s work to conceptualise the motivations for online hate. SAGE journals, 43(2), 256-272.

Kim, D. (2024, February 27). Update: Lee Jae Wook and aespa’s Karina Confirmed To Be Dating. Soompi.

Kim, D. (2024, February 29). Lee Jae Wook’s Agency Announces Legal Action For Malicious Posts Following Dating News. Soompi.

Lorna, W., & Perrin, W. (2021). Obliging Platforms to Accept a Duty of Care. In M. Moore & Damian T. (Eds.), Regulating Big Tech: Policy Responses to Digital Dominance (pp. 93-109). Oxford Academic.

Pattison, K. (2024, February 16). A short history of how fandoms shaped the internet. The Times.

Salvoni, E. (2024, March 7). K-pop singer Karina issues grovelling apology for having a BOYFRIEND after furious fans accuse her of ‘betrayal’ and drive to her agency HQ with sign asking ‘is our love not enough?’. Daily Mail.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply