Online Harassment towards Celebrities

As social media brings interpersonal conversations and public discourse online, it also brings harassment and bullying online. While online harassment is a major problem for many social media platforms, it is important for academic research to further understand online culture and evolution of human behaviors online. For that matter, this literature review explores the concept of online harassment, specifically towards microcelebrities, as a byproduct of online culture, which exclusively exists in the online environment and goes hand in hand with online social dynamics. In addition, this literature review also examines the interconnected and mutually inclusive relationship between this byproduct and real-life harassment to understand the lack of proficient legal laws and social media community’s effort in addressing online harassment.

Harassment can be defined as intentional repeated attack or annoyance towards an individual (Pater et al., 2016, p.369). Moreover, harassment can also be “understood as or unwanted attention, contact or surveillance that causes distress or fear to the victim” (Wykes, 2007, p.158) or self-harm behaviors, such as isolating oneself and developing an eating disorder (Gilbert & Irons, 2005). However, the introduction and growth of social media and online platforms have transited real-life harassment to online harassment and adapted its variation and implication in the online community. Citron (2015) defines online harassment as “a persistent and repeated course of conduct targeted at a specific person, that is designed to and that causes the person severe emotional distress, and often the fear of physical harm” and “is often accomplished by a perfect storm of abuse” (p.2). Many instances of harassment might be one-off, there are situations where victims are targeted repeatedly across platforms, which may affect victims’ serenity, reputation, or their ability to participate in social media platforms (Marwick & Miller, 2014, p.27).

Although the definition of online harassment reiterates some characteristics of real-life harassment, the degree to which perceived consequences and the damage of such behavior can be of the same seriousness as real-life harassment. In some cases, online harassment can trigger self-harassment, such as development of self-deprecating thoughts about oneself and exert self-harm behaviors (Lewis et al., 2011). While this is the case, online harassers oftentimes never have to face any consequences because of the ability to stay anonymous on social media. According to Duggen (2017), 54% of online harassment targets claim to not know the real identity of the harasser (p. 25). This persistence is because online anonymity makes it challenging to identify the perpetrator (Online Harassment, defamation, and hate speech & when online harassment is justified). Even when the person’s identity is identified, laws may only be applicable depending on a case-to-case basis. This is due to the fact that while there is no official confirmation that online harassment or cyberbullying speech is protected by legislations, laws were written in accordance with the First Amendment (Online Harassment, defamation, and hate speech).

According to Duggan (2017), online harassment mostly takes place on social media (p. 23). Considering gender-based harassment, online harassment mostly happens to females and transgender people under the form of sexual harassment (Marwick & Miller, 2014; Citron, 2014). More than that, a person’s anonymity is inversely proportional with their vulnerability to online harassment (Jhaver et al., 2018). This means that celebrities, microcelebrities, and public figures are most likely targets for online harassment and are most exposed to such behaviors online. The literature review will go through the basic distinctions between microcelebrities and celebrities to more accurately define microcelebrities (or social media influencers).

Research about microcelebrities and social media influencers have various definition of the terms. This is due to the fact that there are different variations in regards of field and expertise of social media influencers. According to Leonardi (2020), microcelebrities are people who are active on social media platforms to inspire or teach their followers and modify their followers’ behaviors (p.867). In contrast to celebrities who have gained public recognition because of their professional talent, these influencers gain fame and followers from self-branding on social media platforms as experts in certain fields (celebrities vs influencers endorsement). More than that, social media influencers tailor their public identity and contents in response to the needs and interest of their target audience (Khamis et al. 2016). This explains why these influencers have a higher engagement power over their community (Leonardi et al., 2020) and social media users identify more with microcelebrities than celebrities (Schouten et al., 2020).

The relationship between social media influencers and their followers is a two-way transaction. While the influencers gain popularity by representing certain community values to gain followers and change their behaviors, they are also under the influence of their followers’ behaviors and influenced from interactions with their followers (Gilani et al., 2019). More than that, the one-way information flow allows followers to learn about social media influencers, while influencers know little about their followers. This kind of one-way information flow does not happen in traditional interpersonal communication. The imbalance in information trade gives followers more power over influencers since the contents being published are dependent on followers’ reactions (Leonardi et al., 2020). Because influencers trade contents for interactions and reactions from their followers, negative reactions can monitor influencers’ behaviors and even mental health. Leonardi (2020) claims that influencers suffer from anxiety, social media fear, and insecurity, which are consequences of online harassment mentioned by (online harassment, defamation, and hate speech). This bridge serves an important point in understanding online harassment as an exclusive online culture.

According to Citron (2015), some people may think experiencing online harassment is expected as a type of “fee” when participating in social media platforms and sharing information, and if the person cannot take the attacks, the solution is to simply quit using the site. For users, this action might be easier to carry out than with microcelebrities, whose business is based solely on their online presence (p.1). Indeed, this tactic has been utilized by lots of microcelebrities, including Zoella, the second-most successful UK vlogger with 10 million subscribers. She used to cease her online activities due to the amount of hateful comments on her contents (Jersley, 2016, p. 5246). As a result, this pause hurt her job as a social media influencer. Although she quickly returns to posting regularly, she still has to make some efforts to vigorously promote herself by urging fans to share, like, comment, and participate in other meme-making activities to make up for the lost fame.

Because of this unique social media dynamics, social media influencers/microcelebrities have to endure enormous amount of online harassment because of their job, while little to no laws can offer them safe working environment both online and offline. Offline, they have to take precautions to protect themselves by hiring safeguards or lawyers. Online, they must train the mentality to deal with online harassment. Cintron (2015) suggests that the law enforcement is not fully bounded by the First Amendment if online harassment interferes with people’s “crucial life opportunity- the ability to work and speak” (p.5). This suggestion may create a healthier working environment since harassers might be held accountable in court should they advance in such online behaviors. However, it does not solve the puzzle as a whole. As long as anonymity is granted online, online harassment will remain a problem.

Thus, the responsibility of protecting people’s well-being online depends on the platform owner and the community on that platform, which means online harassment deterrence is a communal effort. Some social media platforms have successfully incorporated policies against online harassment by supporting and reinforcing social norms within a community or designing rules to encourage users to behave more positively and respectfully. An obstacle in obtaining this is the different understanding of what constitutes as online harassment. However, Pater et al. (2016) claims that when policies are unclear, the norms are constructed and enforced by community, which might have more value and enforcing power than imposed policies.

The interactive nature of social media is to allow users to freely share and interpersonally connect with people, especially celebrities and microcelebrities, and enforce commonality and relationships between people. This freedom of use allows for a greater expression of self but might also encourage malicious and harassing activities online.


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Duggan, M. (2017). Online Harassment 2017, Pew Research Center, 1–85.

Gilani, P., Bolat, E., Nordberg, D., & Wilkin, C. (2019). Mirror, mirror on the wall: Shifting leader– follower power dynamics in a social media context. Leadership (London, England), 16(3), 174271501988981–363.

Gilbert, P. and Irons, C. (2005). Focused therapies and compassionate mind training for shame and self- attacking. Compassion: Conceptualisations, research and use in psychotherapy. 263–325.

Jhaver, S., Ghoshal, S., Bruckman, A., & Gilbert, E. (2018). Online Harassment and Content Moderation: The Case of Blocklists. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 25(2), 1–33.

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Wykes, M. (2007). Constructing crime: Culture, stalking, celebrity and cyber. Crime, Media, Culture, 3(2), 158–174.



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