Social Media

Social Media May Be Fueling Celeb Attacks

Frequent use of sites like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are turning stars into "publicly intimate figures"

Social Media
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Oct 12, 2016 at 4:59 PM ET

Following the recent robbery of Kim Kardashian and the killing of a contestant from “The Voice” by an obsessive fan earlier this summer, new data on how public figures are targeted seems almost eerily timed. While these two celebrities were not included in this particular research, it’s representative of a newly discovered trend: attacks on celebrities are becoming increasingly common and more personally motivated. This is something that the researchers think can be tied back to more widespread use of social media.

The report, published on Wednesday in the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law, built on a previous Secret Service report that studied how public figures were targeted between the years of 1949 and 1995. While the overall number of targets has decreased since then, a significant change in who was attacked could be observed. While celebrities accounted for only 19 percent of all public figures assaulted in the pre-internet age, there has been a jump of 15 percentage points on attacks made on movie, sports, and other celebrities between 1995 and 2015.

The findings have led the researchers to coin the term “publicly intimate figure,” which refers to how the role of social media has created “new normal relationship between public figures and the public at large is at once intimate and impersonal.” While most people know that being able to “like” one of Kylie Jenner’s Instagram posts doesn’t constitute a real connection, the report authors note that some delusional followers of public figures “may be deeply disturbed and feel personally affected by the behaviors of public figures because they think they know them well.”

Nearly half of the attackers were identifying definitively as having mental health problems, while another 36 percent were undetermined. The two most common diagnoses for attackers who did have identifiable psychological conditions were schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Grandiosity was a common delusion, accounting for 73 percent of attackers.

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Another common characteristic among attackers was that virtually all of them were men (Yolanda Saldivar, who killed pop singer Selena Quintanilla was the only exception), while women accounted for 31 percent of the victim base. Heiress Paris Hilton was the only celebrity to be attacked on three separate occasions.

Looking at the types of attackers and who they target, motives for the crime are hardly surprising. Rejection by, or romantic obsession with, the target accounted for 7 percent of all attacks, with generalized emotional distress and the general perception of injustice by the victim could be seen in 14 and 7 percent of cases, respectively. Other common motives included retaliation for specific actions and (in the case of political targets) dissatisfaction with judicial or other governmental targets. Fame-seeking attacks accounted for only 2 percent of cases, something researchers say might also be reflective of social media’s growing influence.

“One could observe that it may be less necessary than in the past to engage in assassination in order to become famous,” they told the Washington Post. “The internet and social media make it possible for anyone with access to technology to achieve fame with little effort.”