So this is weird and has probably never happened before and may never happen again, but: Justin Bieber is right about something.
This weekend the pop star and enfant terrible threatened to make his Instagram private if fans didn’t stop using the platform to attack his maybe-new-girlfriend Sofia Richie (yes, daughter of Lionel). (She’s, ugh, 17.) Fans had been filling the comments of Bieber’s Instagrams of him and Richie with lines of snakes and other acts of emoji aggression, and Bieber wanted it to stop.
(Update, Aug. 16, 2016: Bieber has now gone and deleted his entire Instagram, including the post that had read, “I’m gonna make my Instagram private if you guys don’t stop the hate this is getting out of hand, if you guys are really fans you wouldn’t be so mean to people that I like.”)
In response to Bieber’s call for peace, fans revolted. They felt like Bieber was choosing his new girlfriend over his fan army, and they did not appreciate the demotion. Some mobilized on social media, responding with their own comments to the Instagram post and getting the #RIPBeliebers hashtag trending on Twitter.
As if that wasn’t crazy enough already, then Bieber’s ex-girlfriend Selena Gomez got involved. “If you can’t handle the hate then stop posting pictures of your girlfriend lol,” she commented. To former Beliebers, this probably felt like sweet redemption—Selena was on their side!
A little refresher about Bieber: He has been arrested, made inappropriate comments about Anne Frank, gotten photographed naked in Bora Bora, acted like a brat in a video testimony, and generally been party to a lot of stupid antics over the past few years. All of this in addition to allegedly being a bad boyfriend to poor aforementioned Gomez. You’ll recall that he had to come out with that song “Sorry” to apologize to basically all of Earth for what he’s done. He is not known for his moral fortitude.
And yet: He is in the right here. Bieber’s relationship with fame lately has been uneasy, and he’s spoken out about the toll he feels the constant pressure to please fans has taken on him. He feels “like a zoo animal, and I wanna be able to keep my sanity,” he wrote earlier this year. Fans pushed back against that, understandably—isn’t fame the cost of doing business? That’s a much murkier question that he’ll no doubt continue to deal with, whereas the Sofia Richie situation seems completely clearcut—of course she shouldn’t be attacked merely for appearing in photos with him. Bieber has every right to date as many (eyeroll) models as he wants and not see them attacked in his Instagram comments. He has every right to ask his fans to treat the people in his life with respect.
As former Slate writer Amanda Hess has written about in the New York Times, the relationship between stars and their online fans has recently gone a little haywire. As the internet has empowered fans to form “armies,” now when fans don’t like something their idol does, they feel entitled to spew hateful comments on social media. It hardly matters what the transgression is. In Hess’ piece, Normani Kordei, a member of the pop group Fifth Harmony, described one of her bandmates, Ally Brooke, as “quirky,” and “cute,” words that were deemed “insufficiently effusive” for some members of the fandom. Kordei, who is black, then became the target of a deluge of racial slurs. In Justin Bieber’s case, fans are mad at him for dating someone they don’t want him to date. If they can’t have him, no one can—that’s more or less the logic here. And of course they’re quick to direct their hate toward not Bieber but the more vulnerable party—a woman or a person of color. It’s reminiscent of the Chris Brown fans who expressed the belief that Rihanna “deserved” Brown’s abuse when he was charged for beating her.
Selena Gomez is in many ways so much cooler than Justin Bieber and so much better off without him and God knows we all love the drama, but Beiber being right means she’s, well, wrong here. Her comments on his Instagram were opportunistic—she probably feels wronged by him and has a personal stake in shaming him. What ex-girlfriend wouldn’t? But what is he supposed to do, take a vow of celibacy? Asking Justin Bieber not to post selfies with whatever babe he’s currently hanging out with would mean essentially the same thing for him. And you know things have gone off the deep end when Justin Bieber is starting to sound like the voice of reason.