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Digital Citizen or Super-Fan? Andrew Yang’s Supporters and Digital Citizenship - Ashley Hinck

At this point in the 2020 primaries for the US presidential nomination for the Democratic Party, Andrew Yang is largely viewed as a long-shot contender. He has never held elected office, and he has consistently polled well outside of the top 4 or 5 candidates. But he has done well enough to qualify for the televised presidential debates and has increasingly earned media coverage, though his supporters would say not as much media coverage as he deserves.


Covering Andrew Yang’s “Fans”

In what little media coverage Yang has earned, reporters have tended to introduce Yang and his supporters to their audience by calling Yang’s supporters “fans.” Maureen O’Connor, writing for The Washington Post in June 2019 described Yang’s appeals to his supporters this way: “Yang addressed his newly growing fan base: ‘If everyone on this list donates $1 and gets one friend or relative to donate $1, we’re on the debate stage.’” In the August 22, 2019 edition of the New York Times, Matt Stevens wrote, “As a result, many of Mr. Yang’s fans — Republican and Democrat alike — have begun to fashion an electability argument around their still-somewhat fringe candidate, and view him as the person best equipped to both beat Mr. Trump and unite the country.” Other reporters described his supporters as a “loyal army of fans” and a fan base that is “certainly one of the most devoted.”


In many cases, this “fan base” was characterized as an explicitly online fan base. For example, NBC News wrote, “Yang has cultivated a rabid online fan base.” Kevin Roose, writing for the New York Times, emphasizes Yang’s supporters’ role on social media: “Still, some people who have noticed Mr. Yang’s rise on social media have cited his enthusiastic fan base — and the fact that nobody saw Mr. Trump coming, either — as proof that it’s too early to write anyone off.” Still other coverage refers specifically to “online fans.” Both POLITICO and the New York Times mention specific online media: In October 2019, POLITICO Magazine, wrote “The zeal of some of Yang’s fans comes in part from the unconventional strategy he has adopted for getting himself in front of them for the first time: podcasts.” The New York Times emphasized Yang’s supporters’ use of participatory culture, writing, “His fans have plastered Mr. Yang into memes and produced songs and music videos about his candidacy.”


“Fan” vs. “Citizen”: Reporters’ Terms Matter

As a scholar of rhetoric and popular culture, I am intrigued by this shift from “citizen” and “voter” to “fan.” I don’t think it’s an accident or a coincidence—calling Yang’s supporters “fans” rather than “voters”, “supporters,” or “citizens” does particular rhetorical work. Indeed, political communication scholars Sharon Jarvis and Soo-Hye Han support that suspicion. They argue that the way journalists position and frame voters has significant political implications. In their 2018 book, Votes That Count and Voters Who Don’t: How Journalists Sideline Electoral Participation (Without Even Knowing It), Jarvis and Han find that journalists framed voters as “isolated-spectators” from 1972-2000. During the 2016 race in particular, journalists framed voters as “trapped in a system” of “flawed candidates.” Journalists instead attributed power during elections to candidates and campaign operators, rather than voters. Ultimately, Jarvis and Han contend that how journalists talk about the role of voters in campaigns matters—it has effects for how voters think of themselves and think of the civic action of voting.


The Rhetorical Work of Calling Yang’s Supporters “Fans”

So what rhetorical work does the term “fan” do in the case of Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign? Why would reporters bother to introduce the term “fan” into their political reporting?


Referring to Yang’s supporters as online fans, rather than offline citizens, allows reporters to fit Yang’s supporters into a narrative of unusual online campaigning. Yang’s strategy of getting media coverage through online podcasts, his supporters’ use of social media to create the #yanggang, and his supporters’ creation of videos and memes supports the view of his supporters as “online fans.” Under this discourse, Yang, his campaign, and his supporters aren’t the typical offline voters—they are something else: they are online fans. Reporters’ hesitancy to describe supporters’ digital activity as “citizens’ digital activity” points to an implicit distinction at work: Online fans are something distinct from offline citizens. Offline citizens vote and donate money, maybe attend a town hall or two. Online fans are something else entirely—they tweet, listen to podcasts, and make memes.


When reporters reach for the term “fan,” they jump over other possibilities, including “internet user” that might also characterize Yang’s campaign as an unusually online one. In some ways, “internet user” seems to be a more useful or accurate term. So why would reporters reach for “fan” over something else like “internet user”? One possible reason is that “fan” carries with it a tinge of the improper. Internet users, on the other hand, escape that same kind of impropriety. Indeed, as a society, we have come to value internet users. Social media platform companies value users for their data, working hard to lure users to their platforms while encouraging users to spend more time on their platforms. Influencers are valued as social media experts—people who use social media so well they have cultivated a following of other social media users. Companies pay for access to those social media followings through influencers. And, despite Congress’s recent call for Silicon Valley to testify about the 2016 election, Silicon Valley is still held up as one of our most valued industries—for its pay, opportunities, and innovation. In other words, everyday internet users are largely valued.


By calling online supporters “fans” rather than “internet users,” commentators imply a subtle critique. Online action takes on an improper tinge. Books like Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers and Paul Booth and Lucy Bennett’s edited collection Seeing Fans trace the ways in which fans are stereotyped as pathologized, deviant, and stigmatized. A social media influencer or YouTube partner like Casey Neistat making YouTube videos is considered normal, desirable, socially valued. A fan making a remix video is deviant, unusual, and socially devalued. While their actions are the same—both are making YouTube videos—“fan” carries a hint of deviance that “internet user” avoids.


The discourse of the “bad online fan” sits in contrast with the “good offline citizen” and implies a critique. An online fan isn’t a real citizen, not a proper offline citizen—they must be something else improper. They must be a fan. This distinction and critique, embedded in the discourse of the “fan-as-political supporter” indicates that we may still not be comfortable with online civic action. Reporters envision voters as offline citizens, and struggle to conceptualize campaigns that have moved much of their work online. The case of Andrew Yang’s “fans” may indicate that citizenship, in the American imaginary, still takes place in an offline world.

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