Fan geographies and engagement between geopolitics of Brexit, Donald Trump, and Doctor Who on social media

Hannah Carilyn Gunderman

Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, United States

[0.1] Abstract—The 2016 Brexit decision and Donald Trump's election to the US presidency that same year led to a wide variety of social media activity, ranging from visceral anger to unadulterated jubilation. How members of particular fandoms choose to express their emotions regarding a geopolitical event can be filtered through the lens of their fannish enthusiasm. Analysis of Doctor Who-influenced geopolitical engagement on Facebook that uses case studies of both Brexit and Donald Trump's election and 2017 inauguration shows that fans used Doctor Who to cope with emotionally taxing geopolitical events and expressed their anguish through the lens of selected Doctor Who plotlines. This use of social media permits fans to shape a new geopolitical landscape within which they can grapple with their political surroundings as influenced by their fandom.

[0.2] Keywords—Data mining; Facebook; Fandom; Science fiction

Gunderman, Hannah Carilyn. 2020. "Fan Geographies and Engagement between Geopolitics of Brexit, Donald Trump, and Doctor Who on Social Media." In "Fandom and Politics," edited by Ashley Hinck and Amber Davisson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 32.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Fandom is expressed through a variety of channels across a wide range of personalities, beliefs, and enthusiasms (Aden 1999; Hills 2002; Jenkins 2012). This can be said for most types of fandom around the world: while stereotypes exist regarding the members of certain fandoms, the real expression of fannish enthusiasm toward a subject is diverse, complicated, and unique. For some, fandom is escapism from distressing personal, social, and emotional circumstances, providing immediate camaraderie in situations in which such companionship may not exist outside the confines of the fandom. For others, fandom simply adds a further layer of enrichment to their lives, not necessarily serving as emotional escapism but rather fulfilling an additional role of entertainment in their lives. Therefore, fandom can be both a required alignment for mental health, simply a personal hobby, or even a combination of the two. The expression of fandom takes many forms, but it is highly prevalent on social media, where fans can engage with their affinity, either directly with central figures (whether they be celebrities, video games, or authors) or indirectly with other members of the fandom (Lopez 2001; Jung 2012). In an age when social media continues to grow in relevance for internet users, it becomes important to understand the intersections between social media and fandom, and how both forces influence each other in shaping online and off-line cultural landscapes.

[1.2] In online cultural landscapes, fans often discuss events in geopolitics, popular culture, and their personal lives through the lens of their fandom. Over the last few years, two major geopolitical events have flooded social media platforms, particularly in the United States and United Kingdom: Brexit (the popular term for the mandated withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union) and the election/inauguration of Donald Trump as US president. The online fandom community of Doctor Who is an example of a digital landscape in which fans discuss their reactions to prominent geopolitical events as mediated by their fandom. On platforms such as Facebook, Doctor Who fans grapple with their emotions toward geopolitical events by engaging in nuanced and deeply detailed discussions that merge geopolitical realities with plotlines and character arcs from the show. The online geopolitical landscapes associated with these events are altered by these Doctor Who references, contesting and shaping the digital situatedness of the event itself. Through such actions, Doctor Who becomes a lens through which to talk about and understand the world. This is a performance of fan geographies: the phenomenon of creating, shaping, and changing place through the lens of a fandom. This is not to be confused with geographies of fandom, which tend to engage with the patterns, distributions, and markers of fandom on the visual landscape, not necessarily the creation of place via fandom, as a fan geographer would explore.

[1.3] Here, I explore the online rhetoric from Doctor Who fan communities interpreting the geopolitics of Brexit and Donald Trump's election as mediated through the show's plotlines and characters. Undertaking an in-depth inquiry of Facebook posts, I highlight the categories of fan commentary and initiate a discussion about how the posts alter the digital geopolitical landscape associated with these events through a lens of fan geographies. I begin with a literature review of the intellectual works that inform this research: the intersections of social media and fandom, popular geopolitics, digital phenomenology, fan geographies, and brief histories of the Brexit decision and Donald Trump's rise to become president of the United States. Next, I describe the methodology used to collect data from relevant Facebook posts. I then present and discuss the categories of Doctor Who social media fan engagement with these geopolitical events. Finally, I conclude with a discussion of how the posts have altered the digital geopolitical landscape associated with these two events. Holistically, these collections of posts highlight the power of using fan studies as a lens for understanding important social dynamics surrounding politics: fans express, (re)interpret, and comment upon their geopolitical ideologies through the lens of their fandom(s). Through processes such as "cultural acupuncture" (Jenkins 2012), in which energy within a culture is directed toward creating a more positive world, these fandom-driven commentaries may manifest as real-world social and political activism, demonstrating how geopolitical events and figures can have a strong influence on fan behaviors and mobilities. Accordingly, I use this paper to advocate for an increased focus on the impacts of geopolitics in the fields of fan geographies and fan studies, particularly so that we can consider fan movements and behaviors in light of fans' geopolitical surroundings.

2. Literature review

[2.1] Within fan communities, social media platforms provide a community through which fans may engage with the object(s) of their enthusiasm and other fans. Booth (2015) describes the liminal spaces of fandom in digital spaces as an environment where fans provide "emotional and subjective interpretation" (37) of the interactions between the plotlines and characters associated with their fandom. In some cases, these interpretations serve as metaphors for making sense of other external events in a fan's life, known as cultural acupuncture, through which characteristics from a fictional world are mapped onto the real world (Jenkins 2012). Activism within digital environments often takes place on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, through which fans may interact directly with a figure, franchise, or organization (Guerrero-Pico 2017). Through cultural acupuncture, we can understand how fan communities, such as Clan PMS and the Harry Potter Alliance, engage in a type of fan activism through which they confront real-world issues (Jenkins 2000, 2012). This activism may take place both in off-line and digital environments, and with varying foci, such as literacy, human rights, and equality activism in the Harry Potter Alliance (Hinck 2019), fancom activism within Korean popular music fandom (Jung 2012), and critical race activism through, a fan-created platform for critiquing whitewashed casting practices (Lopez 2011; Brough and Shresthova 2012). Similarly, Doctor Who fans use Facebook to engage with their geopolitical surroundings by using cultural acupuncture to interpret contemporary issues through the lens of their fandom.

[2.2] Popular culture is inherently geopolitical. If we understand geopolitics to refer to the study of politics within spatial contexts, popular geopolitics can be defined as the "process by which geopolitical ideas are produced and reproduced through popular culture" (Haverluk, Beauchemin, and Mueller 2014, 20). Popular geopolitics therefore includes the many ideas, tangible items, and experiences that constitute the everyday geographies of an individual, studied through a lens of popular culture. Dittmer and Gray (2010) offers a further useful interpretation of popular geopolitics as a branch of political geography in which the daily lived experiences of geopolitics are the subject of interest. Popular geopolitics influence who we, as consumers of media, fear and respect; what areas of the world (or, in the case of this research, which areas of our digital landscape) we associate with violence, peace, fear, or safety; and whether we accept or reject societal norms. Popular geopolitics are reflections of what a society considers important to its everyday personal geographies, not necessarily the items, actors, and landscapes that may actually hold importance. These issues, actors, and landscapes of perceived importance may guide digital human mobilities, that is, online movements occurring within the social media landscape. I here concentrate discussions of popular geopolitics on the consumption side of media, where fans co-construct the meaning of popular culture and the significance of media in daily geographies. It is through this co-construction that the linkage between fandom and geopolitics becomes clear, and I use fan geographies as a lens through which to understand how this linkage works to contest and influence the placefulness of the digital landscapes associated with geopolitical events. In the context of this paper, I use placefulness as defined by Tuan (2001) to indicate an extension of place, that is, as a space endowed with psychological characteristics and felt value (4). Therefore, placefulness in this context refers to the felt value of a space based on social, cultural, and political influences within the space.

[2.3] The term fan geographies refers to the study of fandom's influence on how individuals perceive and interact with their daily landscapes. Fans of a cultural phenomenon may see the world's myriad landscapes through the lens of that fandom. For many individuals, particularly those who have felt alienated from a portion of, or even all of, their society, fandom can be a source of comfort and camaraderie. Involvement in a fandom can provide a sense of safety to those who have been bullied by providing a community in which individuals can comfortably engage in their own hobbies and interests. Fan geographies attempt to study how such involvement works to create and recreate place and mobilities. They differ from a geography of fandom in that studies of the latter are typically concerned with patterns and distributions of fandom artifacts, while fan geographies explore the phenomenon of fandom as place making in itself. Fandom, including affinity toward certain music, video games, and films, can be a deeply meaningful way for humans to align themselves with other individuals for camaraderie and support (Taylor 2006; Waggoner 2009; Williams, Hendricks, and Winkler 2006). Such alignment can become ingrained within their daily geographies: with whom they interact, where they travel, what they purchase, and where they live. Geraghty (2014) describes the impact of fandom-driven activities, such as collecting memorabilia, on the geographical mobilities of fans. His study explores how their movements and the spaces they choose to occupy are guided by a desire to engage with relics of their fandom. Some fans engage in fan pilgrimages to perform characteristics of their fandom and express their devotion to a franchise (Reijnders 2010), and can, according to Aden (1999), represent the "interaction of story and individual imagination" (10). In some cases, fan geographies transform the place identity of certain areas, such as Vancouver's imagined fandom landscapes associated with Smallville (2001–11), The X-Files (1993–2018), and the Battlestar Galactica reboot (2004–9) (Brooker 2007), and fan tourism to Holmfirth, England, to engage in a mediated reality guided by Last of the Summer Wine (1973–2010) (Hills 2002). Such engagement lends itself to place making: real-life landscapes becoming entrenched in the characteristics of a fandom, altering both the meaning of the fandom and the real-life places themselves. The nature of the fandom (peaceful, violent, compassionate, empathic, apathetic, etc.) narrates the placefulness of these spaces. Some members of a fandom may highlight more peaceful aspects of the fan community when engaging with a political event, while other members may choose to connect negative aspects of the fandom with the event, such as the online and off-line wave of sexist rejection of the new, female Doctor by a portion of Doctor Who fans after the announcement that the new Doctor would be a woman (Della Fera 2018). While these examples describe fandom-influenced mobilities across off-line landscapes, I propose a reading of fan geographies in which we assess the impact of fandom on fan mobilities across digital landscapes, such as those seen within fandom communities on social media platforms.

[2.4] Tying fan geographies to Doctor Who, hundreds of social media users have chosen to comment on Brexit and the election of Donald Trump through the lens of their Whovian fandom, often referring to plotlines, characters, and symbols associated with the show. Whether they make a passing mention or a deep analysis of interconnections between the show and these political events, Doctor Who fans' social media use displays varying levels of entanglement between their fandom and their perceptions of surrounding political landscapes. This engagement weaves new online landscapes surrounding Brexit and Donald Trump, landscapes which are entrenched in the particular values of the Doctor Who fandom that a given fan has chosen to highlight. This transformation is a performance of fan geographies, a subfield of study within both geography and fan studies through which I explore both how fans navigate the world through the lens of their fandom and how geopolitical events impact the rhetoric used within fan communities.

[2.5] An overarching goal of this paper is to understand how fans of Doctor Who use images, themes, and lore from the franchise to grapple with the geopolitical realities of Donald Trump's presidency and Brexit, shaping the digital geopolitical landscapes associated with these two topics as well as shaping the discourse within the fandom. In these cases, the true realities of these geopolitical events may not be understood by the fans. Their engagement with the events and the way they connect them to themes from the show does, however, reflect their own geopolitical realities. Using fundamentals of digital phenomenology presents an excellent opportunity to analyze how the visual experience of consuming Doctor Who can imbue a viewer with the framework to process their emotions regarding political events and thus create their own geopolitical realities. This creates discourse around the complex relations that exist between geopolitics and fandom.

[2.6] Philosophically, this research deeply engages with phenomenology and the myriad ways in which individuals interact with the material realities surrounding them, such as the daily geographies in which they come into contact and the consciousness and experiences these everyday landscapes entail. Rehorick and Bentz (2008) succinctly and powerfully summarize phenomenology as a practice: "Phenomenology is many things to many people" (xi). Rather than having a specific, singular definition, the boundaries of this philosophical framework are fluid and adaptive. The fundamental theories of phenomenology are often appropriated for the subject at hand. In the realm of visual phenomenology (in which digital phenomenology can be included), scholars endeavor to understand how visual representation occupies a nexus of the image and the associated subject matter (Crowther 2009, 9).

[2.7] Minister (2016) highlights how phenomenology draws attention to a global society in which the subjectivity of others is often ignored, dehumanizing lived experiences and allowing individuals to become objects that can be exploited, their daily realities downplayed or ignored. In an increasingly volatile global geopolitical environment where marginalized groups continue to feel erasure, phenomenology reiterates its importance as a methodological framework by exposing one's own acknowledged (or unnoticed) insensitivities to the struggles of others. Phenomenology remains "a meditation on knowledge, a knowledge of knowledge" (Lyotard 1991, 31), and strives to isolate the foundations of the scientific knowledge that comprises society, the "immediate data of knowledge" (32).

[2.8] Considering a phenomenology of the digital world requires understanding how users form knowledge through a digital interface and how such knowledge influences their perception of off-line realities. In an article published by the Atlantic titled "The Case Against Reality" (Gefter and Quanta 2016), Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science, explains how individuals come to perceive reality, particularly as mediated by technology, using the metaphor of the computer desktop interface:

[2.9] Suppose there's a blue rectangular icon on the lower right corner of your computer's desktop—does that mean that the file itself is blue and rectangular and lives in the lower right corner of your computer? Of course not. But those are the only things that can be asserted about anything on the desktop—it has color, position, and shape. Those are the only categories available to you, and yet none of them are true about the file itself or anything in the computer…You could not form a true description of the innards of the computer if your entire view of reality was confined to the desktop…That blue rectangular icon guides my behavior, and it hides a complex reality that I don't need to know…And that's pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be…I'm claiming that experiences are the real coin of the realm. The experiences of everyday life—my real feeling of a headache, my real taste of chocolate—that really is the ultimate nature of reality.

[2.10] While Hoffman's statement is metaphorical, it nevertheless highlights the complexities of knowledge creation and how notions of reality come to be perceived. While reality itself is complex (i.e., what really lies behind the blue rectangular icon) and not necessarily representative of what the individual actually sees (e.g., the color, position, and shape of the icon), true realities are the lived experiences of the individual. These lived experiences form a personal truth—a lens through which daily geographies are framed, analyzed, and acted upon.

[2.11] Many consider the Brexit decision and the rise of Donald Trump to signify a rise in global neo-nationalism, that is, in a perceived dominance of some nations over others (Lee 2017) that often manifests through xenophobic and discriminatory rhetoric. For millions of world citizens, these events provoked (and continue to provoke) strong, often polarizing emotions. Understanding the rationale of this research in discovering how Doctor Who fans speak about and make sense of Brexit and Donald Trump's presidency through the lens of the science fiction show necessitates a brief history of these two events that describes how they are embedded in emotionally charged narratives.

[2.12] Signifying Britain's exit from the European Union (EU), Brexit refers both to the nationwide referendum in June 2016 in which 51.9 percent of UK voters voted to leave the EU and to Britain's ongoing withdrawal from the EU. Commentators have called the Brexit vote "a choice between an imaginary past of which too many in this country cannot let go and a future about which all of us are inescapably uncertain" (Editorial 2016). Pro-Brexit voters see EU membership as economically and socially costly to the UK; they believe that being in the EU forces the country to give up much of its sovereignty. Brexiters also lament the ease of immigration enabled by EU membership, and many feel that leaving the EU will allow the country to regain control of its borders. Conversely, citizens of the UK who voted to remain in the EU see Brexit as racist, backwards, and detrimental to the country's economy, culture, and society. Considering the highly partisan nature of British media, extreme nationalism has forced the country into anti- and pro-Brexit echo chambers, leaving a trail of hostility, negativity, and distrust. While a full British exit from the EU is still being hotly contested at the time of writing, emotions regarding Brexit are raw, polarized, and prominent in both online and off-line geopolitical landscapes.

[2.13] Similarly, Donald Trump's journey to the White House remains a contentious, polarizing, emotional, and violence-inspiring phenomenon. Beginning as an unlikely Republican Party nominee for the 2016 election, Trump quickly gained an almost cult-like following across the country and soon decimated the presidential hopes of other Republican runners. Running on a platform that many critics called racist, xenophobic, and backwards, Trump's anti-immigration, anti-LGBT, and pro–police brutality rhetoric appealed to (and continues to appease) many conservative voters across the country. He won an unexpected victory over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton by virtue of his voters' distribution and the nature of the Electoral College, and during his first years as president has continued to polarize the country with problematic rhetoric. Much like anti-Brexit voters, many anti-Trump citizens feel that Trump, his policies, and his followers are trying to hold on to a social and cultural ideal of the past. His strongest supporters feel that he is helping to return the country to an ideal they believe once existed. Dialogue between pro- and anti-Trump parties is often hateful, tense, and volatile, and like Brexit, is also apparent in both off-line and online communities.

[2.14] Donald Trump's presidency and Brexit both shed light on country-wide polarizations of political and personal values, cultural acceptance, and neo-nationalism. For both the UK and the US, these events have left millions of people struggling to find methods to protest, cope with, or celebrate their reactions to these geopolitical events; continuing vitriolic rhetoric has created off-line and online spaces of political polarization. Given the strong emotions that often surround fandom, it thus becomes highly appropriate to explore if, and how, fans navigate these difficult geopolitical situations through the comfort and camaraderie of a science fiction fandom.

3. Methods

[3.1] Prior to official data collection, I initiated a pilot review of the Doctor Who social media landscape engaging with Brexit and Donald Trump on Facebook and Twitter. The results of this pilot review informed the development of the methods I employed for the research. The design of this study was inspired by Stavros et al. (2014), who cataloged posts made by sport fans on their respective team's social media pages and categorized the posts based on fan motivation types. The fan motivation categories from Stavros et al. capture much of the sentiment found in the pilot review; I therefore considered their methodology a strong one on which to base the study presented here. Appendix 1 shows these categories, their subcategories, and examples of each as found in the pilot review. Some categories were carried over from the referenced study, such as "loyalty" and "encouragement," as they were deemed to be common traits across most types of fandom. Other categories, such as "alternative realities" and "character judgment," were developed specifically for this research.

[3.2] After developing and delineating categories into which to organize social media posts, I used these categories as a basis for developing search terms that capture iconic characteristics of the Doctor Who fandom. The pilot review revealed a majority of posts pertaining to the following merchandise, symbolic images, and mainstream references to Doctor Who: Cybermen, Daleks, the TARDIS, and/or the Weeping Angels. In many cases, a visual representation of these symbols harkens to Doctor Who without mentioning the show's name. The Cybermen, antagonists who have been present on the series since 1966, and the Daleks, villains since 1963, remain iconic characters on the show. The TARDIS, which stands for "Time and Relative Dimension in Space," is the Doctor's time travel vessel and is used as a standalone representation of the show. The Weeping Angels, first introduced in the episode "Blink," broadcast in 2007, remain terrifying and unsettling villains in the show who are most strongly associated with the new generation of Doctor Who antagonists developed since the 2005 revamp of the show.

[3.3] Holistically, even the newest or most superficial of Doctor Who fans recognize and/or use these symbols to reference the show. Combined with the results of the pilot review, they therefore heavily inspired the development of the search terms used to mine data. Accordingly, I developed the following ten search terms for use in the study: (1) "Cybermen Donald Trump," (2) "Cybermen Brexit," (3) "Daleks Donald Trump," (4) "Daleks Brexit," (5) "TARDIS Donald Trump," (6) "TARDIS Brexit," (7) "Weeping Angels Donald Trump," (8) "Weeping Angels Brexit," (9) "Doctor Who Donald Trump," and (10) "Doctor Who Brexit."

[3.4] Having developed the search terms, it was necessary for me to choose a social media platform for data mining. While Doctor Who fans engage with geopolitics on multiple platforms, the pilot review revealed that only Facebook demonstrated the level of engagement and detail needed to analyze how fans interpret Brexit and Donald Trump through the lens of the Doctor Who fandom. Posts found on Instagram and Twitter connecting Doctor Who with Brexit and/or Donald Trump either lacked enough detail for meaningful analysis or only employed hashtags. Initial searches on Facebook using the aforementioned search terms revealed richer, more detailed engagement. I therefore chose Facebook as the site for data mining.

[3.5] Data collection was conducted by entering each search term into the search field on Facebook. I mined all publicly available posts containing the words and cataloged these posts in a database. To ensure data quality, I analyzed each post for relevance to Doctor Who, Brexit, and/or Donald Trump, and discarded those in which there were no applicable references. As the posts gave no contextual information regarding users' levels of engagement with the Doctor Who fandom, the research design assumes all users posting about Doctor Who and either Brexit or Donald Trump to be fans of the show. No identifying information (such as usernames, profile photographs, and geographic location) was retained in the data. Upon categorization, the data were visualized in Tableau software to show the distribution of categories.

4. Results

[4.1] The goal of this research is to use fan geographies as a lens to explore the extent to which fans of Doctor Who use social media and their fandom to discuss Brexit and/or Donald Trump. The results obtained begin to achieve this goal. Data mining yielded a total of 704 posts. After analyzing each post for relevance and quality, 197 posts were determined to not reference the show and either Brexit or Donald Trump. These were removed from the analysis, leaving a total of 507 posts for analysis. Each search term returned at least one post connecting elements of Doctor Who to either Brexit or Donald Trump. The analyzed posts were posted between December 2015 and October 2017. The search term that yielded the most posts was "Doctor Who Brexit," with a total of 121 posts. Conversely, the search term that yielded the least posts was "Weeping Angels Brexit," with one post. Figure 1 shows the distribution of the 507 posts across all search terms. Figure 2 highlights the patterns and distributions found in the data; only those umbrella categories and subcategories from Appendix 1 that returned data are included in these visualizations. In total, the highest percentage of posts fell into two categories: "Comparison → Character Judgment" ("Daleks Brexit" with thirty-nine and "Daleks Donald Trump" with thirty-six) and "Comparison → Alternative Realities" ("TARDIS Donald Trump" with thirty-four and "Daleks Donald Trump" with twenty-seven). Other categories with high numbers of posts were "Comparison → Plotlines" ("Doctor Who Brexit" with twenty-four), "Esteem → Venting" ("Doctor Who Brexit" with twenty-seven), and "Camaraderie → Problem Solving" ("TARDIS Donald Trump" with twenty-two). Figures 3, 4, 5, and 6 display examples of the posts collected.

Table displaying the number of posts associated with each search team. 'Doctor Who Brexit': 121 Posts. 'Daleks Donald Trump': 103 Posts. 'TARDIS Donald Trump': 86 Posts. 'Daleks Brexit': 72 Posts. 'Doctor Who Donald Trump': 46 Posts. 'TARDIS Brexit': 34 Posts. 'Cybermen Donald Trump': 26 Posts. 'Cyberman Brexit': 12 Posts. 'Weeping Angels Donald Trump': 6 Posts. 'Weeping Angels Brexit': 1 Post.

Figure 1. Number of posts per search term.

A visualization displaying which search terms were most strongly aligned with each fan motivation category. The top three were 34 'TARDIS Donald Trump' posts aligned with 'Comparison → Alternative Realities,' 36 'Daleks Donald Trump' posts aligned with 'Comparison → Character Judgement,' and 39 'Daleks Brexit' posts also aligned with 'Comparison → Character Judgement.' Other strong alignments include 27 'Daleks Donald Trump' posts for 'Comparison → Alternative Realities' and 27 'Doctor Who Brexit' posts for 'Esteem → Venting.'

Figure 2. Categorization of Facebook posts by subject area.

Screencapture of a Facebook post with the text 'What we need is a political Tardis that can take us back to 22 June last year.'

Figure 3. "TARDIS Brexit → Problem Solving."

Screencapture of a Facebook post with the text 'THIS JUST IN! Donald Trump has fired his entire Cabinet and replaced them with Daleks. In a press conference, the President described the Daleks as 'a bunch of really great guys.' The text is accompanied by a picture of Donald Trump in front of a group of Daleks.

Figure 4. "Daleks Donald Trump → Alternative Realities."

Screencapture of a Facebook post with the text 'In other news, Trump Tower is apparently a TARDIS…how else could two such enormous egos have fit inside that building?' This is accompanied by an article title from CNN called 'Kanye West meets with Donald Trump at Trump Tower.'

Figure 5. "TARDIS Donald Trump → Analogies."

Screen capture of a Facebook post with the text 'I've finally worked out what is going on. The Tardis crashed into Westminster as the Tories got in and we are regressing back in time! We're living in an episode of Dr Who with Daleks who want to 'exterminate' everything. (Geek explanation)'

Figure 6. Post reflecting the geopolitical landscape of Brexit.

5. Discussion

[5.1] The results of the analysis provide insight into the interactions between current geopolitical events and fandom, using online engagement both between Doctor Who fandom and Brexit and between Doctor Who fandom and Donald Trump as case studies. These insights support the value of the emergence of fan geographies as a new area of fan studies. As Doctor Who fans grapple with the results of Brexit and Donald Trump's election, they compare many aspects of the two events to Doctor Who. They thus attempt to create an altered online geopolitical landscape associated with these two events. This use of fandom to bring order to and influence interpretations of real geopolitical, cultural, and social geographies is a performance of fan geographies.

[5.2] A high proportion of users compared the character of Donald Trump and Brexit figures (such as Theresa May and Boris Johnson) to the Daleks, villains from Doctor Who who are devoid of all emotions but hate. Wolfe and Wika (2010) note that the scariest science fiction villains are often those who most resemble humans. While the Daleks do not visually resemble humans, the comparisons that Doctor Who fans have made between them and political figures on social media suggest that fans fear those who are monsters in disguise. In the case of character judgements of Donald Trump, his often violent rhetoric and racism/sexism/xenophobia are drivers of harsh criticism of his personal and political character in digital and off-line environments. Fan criticisms, by comparison, may reflect the geopolitical rhetoric commonly used in the US; as Parry-Giles and Steudeman (2017) state, "American presidential campaigns and elections are mostly (if not exclusively) about candidates rather than issues" (67). Further, Kronman (1998) discusses the prevalence of critics' use of character judgements of politicians that use their personal characters to call into question their political characters. Particularly in cases where information regarding the political character of politicians is limited (especially when politicians flip from one stance to another based on the audience they are addressing), individuals regain agency in the evaluation of these elected officials by using personal character judgements to assess the politicians' efficacy. In the case of Donald Trump, his use of extreme and polarizing language elicits strong and emotional responses from certain populations, especially from marginalized groups who have been the subject of his negative rhetoric. It is therefore unsurprising that a high proportion of posts analyzed in the present study demonstrated fans of Doctor Who making character judgements of Trump by comparing him to Daleks, which are, within the fandom, effectively known as the most evil creatures in the universe.

[5.3] Similar arguments likely apply to the multitude of posts comparing Theresa May and Boris Johnson to the Daleks: citizens feel emboldened to make strong character judgements of politicians who demonstrate inconsistent political character or use extreme rhetoric. However, we may also consider British national identity and nationalism as a driver for fans choosing to compare Brexit figures to iconic Doctor Who characters. Anderson (1983) describes nations as imagined political communities to which members feel a bond as inhabitants. Pro-Brexit rhetoric from May and Johnson fundamentally operates through the idea of an imagined political community separate from the real economic, social, and political bonds Britain has to the EU, while anti-Brexit rhetoric frames inclusion in the EU as an essential piece of British national identity. Because Doctor Who is an iconic British cultural phenomenon, fans can logically connect Doctor Who to an event that has polarized British national identities.

[5.4] Many users also constructed alternative realities in which the TARDIS was used to stop the rise of Brexit and Donald Trump. These alternative realities use the TARDIS as it is imagined to function in Doctor Who to revise the modern geopolitical realities surrounding the user. These posts may evoke specific mentions of real geographic landmarks affiliated with Brexit or Donald Trump's presidency. Others suggested that technology from the show could be used to remedy these geopolitical circumstances, continuing a legacy in which science fiction technologies are often adapted for creating human happiness (such as in Stanislaw Lem's Cyberiad series [1964–65]). Several fans applied Brexit logic to the Doctor Who universe, speculating how the Doctor's travels would be inhibited by the harsher immigration policies associated with Brexit. One fan jokes, for example, "The Doctor cannot go back to Gallifrey because he is stuck at customs!" It is clear, even from these initial Facebook posts, that Doctor Who fans have constructed new geopolitical landscapes in which the show, Brexit, and Donald Trump are intricately connected. The data demonstrate a narrative of fan geographies, as hundreds of fans created geopolitical discourse that not only guides their own understandings of the political geographies in which they live but also allows them to alter the placefulness of these events by blurring the lines between fantasy and reality in an act of cultural acupuncture (Jenkins 2012). While fans know they cannot literally use the TARDIS to travel back in time to stop Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, and while they know that Theresa May and Donald Trump are not literally Daleks, they are nevertheless able to craft a geopolitical landscape within the fandom in which certain actions are possible.

[5.5] Perhaps one of the most striking observations of the research is that none of the posts collected were pro-Brexit or pro-Donald Trump. The data, as collected, exhibit only anti-Brexit and anti-Donald Trump rhetoric. This is not to say, however, that positive sentiment toward Brexit or Donald Trump does not exist in the Doctor Who fandom. Several factors may account for this pattern in the data: first, many episodic themes in the show are antithetical to the moral and ethical foundations of Brexit and Donald Trump. While past episodes of the show have several problematic instances of othering and racism (Orthia 2013), the plots of episodes since the 2005 reboot have consistently (albeit not exclusively) been more progressive, compassionate, and empathic. Second, I can theorize that pro-Brexit and/or pro-Donald Trump posts were not publicly available at the time of data collection, suggesting that individuals who are drawing connections between positive sentiment for these geopolitical events and Doctor Who are not doing so as publicly as those exhibiting negative sentiment. Finally, we can hypothesize that recent episodes of Doctor Who, as well as media statements by the writers and actors, have alienated their pro-Brexit and pro-Trump fanbase. Many actors from the show made their disdain clear after the Brexit vote, and episodes from seasons ten and eleven have included jabs at Donald Trump, such as 10.12: "The Doctor Falls," in which the Doctor states, "Like sewage, smartphones, and Donald Trump, some things are just inevitable," and 11.4: "Arachnids in the UK," where supporting characters express that they have "hated Trump for decades." This reiterates the importance of understanding that fandom is dynamic, and geopolitical events and political landscapes can affect the level of comfort and camaraderie that fans feel within their fandom. In this case, pro-Brexit and pro-Trump fans may have felt betrayed by the show's political stance and have chosen to lessen, or end, their involvement with the fandom.

[5.6] Phenomenologically, the data advance an understanding of how knowledge of geopolitical events is created or influenced by fandom, using Doctor Who as a case study. Particularly within posts which were categorized as "Comparison → Alternative Realities," "Comparison → Plotlines," or "Comparison → Character Judgment," fans used their own knowledge of the geopolitical event and the show to draw comparisons, theorize solutions, and provide explanations for the political landscapes surrounding them. In these cases, Doctor Who gave fans the tools to attempt to understand Brexit and Donald Trump's presidency, reinforcing their personal realities and knowledge of not only these events but also of the show and of the Doctor Who fandom itself. The blurry borders between fantasy and reality provide insight into how important a role fandom can play for fans' knowledge creation and perceptions of reality. Waskul (2006, 33–34), through a lens of tabletop role-playing games, discusses these eroded boundaries:

[5.7] The presumably distinct categories of fantasy/persona, imagination/player, and reality/person can be shown as a subtle continuum of finely graded experience. More precisely, all selves and social reality can be understood as emergent from the interstices of these interrelated provinces of meaning…human beings do not experience reality directly; reality is fashioned and mediated by symbols, language, social structure, and situated variables of social interaction. Consequently, realms of fantasy, imagination, and reality are notoriously porous; experience, knowledge, and understanding routinely slips from one to another.

[5.8] The realities of Brexit and Donald Trump are constructed by the individual, and such realities are mediated through the lived experiences of said individual. When fandom plays a large role in an individual's daily geographies, it is more than reasonable to suggest that their perceptions of geopolitical events will be heavily influenced by and expressed through fandom. As shown in this research, Doctor Who fans, whether making a one-off reference to Donald Trump's being similar to a Dalek or constructing a detailed alternate reality in which the TARDIS is used to prevent Brexit from occurring, co-construct and alter their perceptions of these geopolitical events through their involvement in the Doctor Who fandom.

6. Conclusions, limitations, and future research

[6.1] As Hinck (2019) explains, fans often develop an emotional bond to their fandom, a bond which manifests through several aspects of their identity. One such aspect is their geopolitical identity. Even a cursory glance at social media highlights an interesting phenomenon: users are forming, shaping, and disseminating their geopolitical ideologies through lenses of their fandoms. Fandom can provide a source of emotional comfort, escapism, and/or a tool through which to express excitement or disdain. This paper highlighted social media posts on Facebook that blended references to Brexit or Donald Trump with themes from Doctor Who. In the case of Brexit and Donald Trump's election and inauguration, many fans used social media (and their own fandom) to express their negative emotions toward these geopolitical events. While some references were fleeting and brief, such as a comparison between Donald Trump and an alien overlord, others were detailed discussions that demonstrated deep knowledge of both the geopolitical event and Doctor Who.

[6.2] Through their comparisons, fans have no doubt shaped the placefulness of the online geopolitical landscape associated with Brexit and Donald Trump's election. However, it must be acknowledged that this research does not capture whether such references exist only in users' online spaces or if such cultural acupuncture also characterizes their off-line engagement with geopolitical events. This highlights an opportunity for further research that would not only look at other social media sites (Instagram, Twitter, Reddit) but would also characterize how fandom of the show affects off-line geopolitical engagement.

[6.3] It must also be noted that this research design was limited to publicly available posts; within the private groups of Doctor Who fans who use social media there may exist more detailed, emotional, and nuanced analyses of Brexit and Donald Trump. The posts included in this research were either those that users felt comfortable sharing with the wider online community or those that were made public in error. In either case, future research designs should include reaching out to online fans (through specific Doctor Who fan pages) and seeking voluntary participation in studies. This would help us to deepen our understanding of how individuals use the show to grapple with geopolitical concerns. In this case, users may be more likely to share their personal social media posts.

[6.4] Future iterations of this research should also be expanded to assess engagement with other geopolitical events and figures, both in the Doctor Who fandom and in other fandoms, exploring how fans use different media affinities to engage with their geopolitical surroundings. This could be accomplished through a similar methodology, in which publicly available data on social media outlets is mined to provide an analysis of the current online geopolitical landscape, or it could assess how geopolitical messages are transferred across platforms.

[6.5] Despite my only using public posts from a single social media platform in this research, I have shown how fandom intricately intersects with fans' geopolitical concerns. This study sets the stage for increased academic attention toward the power of fan geographies, a lens through which we can understand how politics, place, culture, and knowledge are influenced by fandom. As a further discussion of cultural acupuncture through metaphor, the number of users creatively using fandom to strategize solutions to real-life geopolitical issues suggests an engagement with policy making. This opens up a new area of research. As fan studies scholars continue to explore the role of politics in fandom and fan communities, future research may engage more closely with fans who are creatively exploring policies and policy making through the lens of their fandom.

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