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How important are past attitudes toward celebrities in forming moral evaluations of their current actions? Can social media stars count on fans’ support regardless of their behavior? Or are scandals involving popular influencers the “nail in the coffin” of their online careers? The authors of a paper published last September in Social Psychological Bulletin provide answers to these questions.

The beginning of October 2023 in Poland was an incredibly intense time. On the one hand, the attention of Poles and Polish women was drawn to the political campaign taking place in the public space ahead of the parliamentary elections. On the other hand, emotions were stirred by events in the Middle East, widely discussed in traditional and social media. In addition, in the first days of the month, a pedophile scandal involving Polish YouTubers broke out, labeled by traditional media as the biggest scandal in the history of Polish YouTube. The so-called “Pandora Gate” began with the publication of a video by Sylwester Wardęga, in which the creator accused popular Polish YouTubers of inappropriate behavior toward girls under the age of 15.

The scandal has gained the attention of not only YouTube users but also employees of companies that collaborated with the accused creators. The situation was also widely commented on by leaders of all political parties; and even started a discussion on the state of Polish law. Among other things, some people raised questions about the legitimacy of marketing activities involving influencers and the effectiveness of countering pedophilia on the Internet, but also about whether the accused creators would nevertheless keep their popularity among fans.
As for the last of the questions, this is where a study by Simon Tobias Karg and colleagues, published last September in Social Psychological Bulletin, can come to the rescue. The paper, titled “Followers Forever: Prior Commitment Predicts Post-Scandal Support of a Social Media Celebrity”, is this year’s winner of the Solomon Asch Award, given by the editors of Social Psychological Bulletin.

The case of Logan Paul
The authors of the article in question were interested in the extent to which scandals involving online creators affect their popularity among male and female fans. To answer this question, the researchers took one particular case: that of Logan Paul, one of the world’s most popular influencers. In 2017, a scandal erupted around him over a video recorded in the so-called “suicide forest”, a place in Japan known for being one of the world’s most-used suicide sites.
The video sparked public outrage – many people saw the content presented by the influencer as intentionally insensitive and shocking. Those who criticized Logan Paul pointed out that he deliberately transgressed society’s moral norms to reach a larger audience. Public anger was so great that two days after the incident, Logan Paul published another video in which he apologized for his behavior and promised to improve.
The described case of the Logan Paul scandal allowed researchers to test two contradictory hypotheses. On the one hand, the researchers expected that people who had previously followed the online creators activities would cease to be his fans after the scandal. After all, as previous studies have shown that even a one-time violation of moral norms has severe consequences for how individuals are judged. On the other hand, it was likely that the most loyal fans of Logan Paul would remain his fans despite his scandalous behavior. Such a case could be related to their previous positive attitudes toward the matter and their reluctance to accept information that did not match their previous understanding of the world.

Fan today, fan forever
To test the hypotheses, the authors analyzed the content of comments published under Logan Paul’s apology video, comparing them to comments found under earlier materials on the creator’s YouTube channel. The researchers took several indicators into account. First, they looked at how engaged fans of the famous influencer were. Second, the researchers looked at whether the online fans liked the online creator and whether they identified with him prior to the scandal. Third, they analyzed whether fans supported the creator during the scandal and what emotions appeared in the comments under the apology video, looking specifically at anger, contempt, sympathy, and admiration.
The authors used an innovative content analysis method of creating a semantic map for each topic of interest using machine learning. As they point out, the advantage of this approach is not only to save time but, above all, to obtain more reliable results than those that can be reached using traditional dictionary methods.
The results of the researchers’ analysis showed the power of liking and social identity, as it turned out that the most committed fans of Logan Paul, those who liked and identified with him to the greatest extent before the scandal, were the most likely to show admiration and sympathy for him after the scandal. Moreover, those people were the least likely to express anger and contempt for Paul’s actions, even though these behaviors clearly crossed the line of society’s moral norms.
Finally, the researchers observed significant differences in the content of the comments published under the apology video by Logan Paul fans and non-fans. The latter were significantly more critical and hostile towards the online filmmaker. As the researchers conclude, the results suggest that while a single scandal involving online influencers may evoke public anger, it is not enough to discourage their most loyal fans. Therefore, things may also turn out similarly for the Polish YouTubers.

More information:
Karg, S. T., Lim, M., & Schnall, S. (2022). Followers Forever: Prior Commitment Predicts Post-Scandal Support of a Social Media Celebrity. Social Psychological Bulletin, 17, 1-26. https://doi.org/10.32872/spb.8283

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