The cult structure of the American anti

Samantha Aburime

United States

[0.1] Abstract—The online-based group known as antis, which originated around 2016 in the United States, exhibit morality-based, cult-like behavior and perpetuate hate speech and censorship in online spaces. Anti ideology has encouraged harmful, obsessive, and dangerous behaviors among its members, specifically minors and young adults. An analysis of the antifandom movement through political, sociological, and behavioral lenses reveals its damaging effects on women, people of color, minors, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

[0.2] Keywords—Antifans; Censorship; Cyberstalking; Hate speech; Shipping; Violence

Aburime, Samantha. 2021. "The Cult Structure of the American Anti." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 36.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Emma A. Jane, in her discussion of the escalation in harm and frequency of antifan behaviors, asks whether we should "ditch the Anti-fan model entirely," as much of antifandom has moved beyond separatist hate watching and culminated in violent and radicalized confrontations (2019, 58). A possible solution Jane proposes is examining antifan media studies through a hybrid interdisciplinary lens. In an attempt to do so, I discuss a specific subsection of antifandom known as the anti, which came about around 2016 in American antifan spaces via social media platforms. The specific interdisciplinary academic lenses I use to analyze the anti are sociological, psychological, ethical, and criminal related. As with hate watching, being an anti is a social performance, "an opportunity for individuals to perform their tastes" and to organize themselves and nonantis into self-constructed hierarchies (Gilbert 2019, 73). Antis have evolved to use an entire ideology of their own, with members self-identifying as antis by adhering to specific moral values within the realm of fictional media.

[1.2] Antis' foundation is the belief that fiction affects reality, in that any problematic behaviors or topics in media, fictitious or not, will cause people to normalize those behaviors, resulting in people (specifically minors) thinking that such actions are acceptable in real life. This is a common argument used by conservative groups to enact queer censorship, who argue that children who see LGBTQIA+ characters in television or books will "turn gay" (Bollinger 2019), so the sanitization of all adult fan spaces is therefore required to protect minors who could potentially encounter problematic sexual content (BrazyDay 2019). The term "problematic" has become a buzzword for moral debates in fan spaces. The accepted definition is "involving or presenting a problem that is difficult to deal with or solve" ("Problematic,",, but it has evolved in online spaces to refer generally to something potentially offensive (Swenson 2016). The term's vagueness makes it hard to be sure of each individual person's specific standards.

[1.3] Antis attempt to glorify their ideology by rebranding it as antipedophilia and anti-incest, but it is actually a loose ideology of disinformation, virtue signaling, and legitimate abuse. Similar to the QAnon cult phenomena, which began in 2017, anti dogma is designed to promote paranoia and play off people's fears and emotions to spread disinformation. They band together to perform this function, forming what might be called a cult, a term that has been defined as a group having a "great devotion to a…movement" ("Cult," Merriam-Webster, However, what truly marks a cult is the control attempted over behavior and thought. Participants in anti circles perpetuate a climate of fear, shame, and trauma in fan spaces. The most common targets of such abuse are women, people of color, teens, abuse survivors, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Fans who are already marginalized are further deprived of safety, anonymity, outlets for growth, self-expression, and relationships. It is therefore vital that we closely monitor hate speech in fan spaces and study these behaviors. Our failure to do so may open doors for bigotry, violence, and disinformation.

2. How anti ideology exhibits cult behavior

[2.1] To elaborate on anti ideology as being like a cult, I utilize the BITE (behavior, information, thought, and emotional control) model, developed by Steven Hassan (2020 and n.d., a and b). This method is used to describe the actions and methods cult social groups use to maintain control over followers. Table 1 provides a summary of the use of the BITE model in relation to antis in particular.

Table 1. BITE model applied to antis

Control Example
Behavioral control Creating a reward/punishment hierarchy system that encourages obedience; publicly shaming and controlling sexual expression and gender identity.
Information control Spreading disinformation and rumors; spying; using people's personal information against them; discouraging engagement with all nonanti sources.
Thought control Using loaded language (e.g., "pedophilia," "incest") as reactionary buzzwords; rejecting critical thinking; using narratives of us versus them; only encouraging "pure," unproblematic thoughts, as designated by the group.
Emotional control Instilling fear of leaving the group by creating self-doubt and threatening expulsion and targeting; focusing on negative emotions and upsetting content while praising hostility.
BITE (behavior, information, thought, and emotional control) model from Hassan (2020 and n.d., a and b).

[2.2] The core approach centers around the idea that those who do not share the same beliefs as the accusers are dangerous and should be stopped by any means necessary. "If it means hurting them, isolating them, or taking away their source of income, [they will] do it" (@freetofic 2020).

[2.3] People who leave the anti scene refer to themselves as ex-antis, or people who reversed their anti viewpoints and old behaviors. Some even run online support groups for others like themselves. One ex-anti explained: "I was young…angry…and in pain…[and] didn't know how to properly cope, and being an anti…became my coping mechanism…[It] allowed me to blame it all on some bogeyman while ignoring the root causes of all my issues" (He-man-the-anti-anti 2020). Another person who wishes to remain anonymous shared, "It was honestly somehow 'empowering' to hate on people who [make] problematic content…Targeting women and queer people is the next best thing, because you feel like you're doing something…As I got older I learned just how toxic it can get." In May 2020, the hashtag #SupportExAntis was trending on Twitter. It was used by many other ex-antis, who shared similar sentiments about their experiences and the toxic environments they had helped create. Ex-antis' responses indicated that antis compartmentalize media categorized as good versus sinful in order to feel powerful and in control.

[2.4] While the majority of #SupportExAntis posts were positive, some antis invaded the #SupportExAntis tag. The BITE model indicates that they were enacting emotional control over ex-antis by perpetuating fear of isolation and violence for no longer adhering to anti beliefs: "You will die a lonely death and have no friends and family to call yours," one said (@theodoramyhoney 2020). Another posted an image that simply read, "We are going to beat you to death" (@dr_haters 2020). Components of BITE's information and thought control were also in evidence, with posters on social media attempting to cast antis as representative of everyone who is against pedophilia and ex-antis as being pro-pedophilia.

3. How antis use cognitive dissonance to justify cruelty

[3.1] To antis, the fictional media that individuals consume takes precedence over how that individual behaves in real life; this reasoning is the basis of justification for how antis judge and target nonantis. This judgment relies heavily on enacting cognitive dissonance, or the mental conflict that occurs when someone's beliefs are contradicted by new information (Aronson et al. 2018). Dissonance always causes a reaction of discomfort. The goal is to reduce that discomfort as much as possible in order to feel justified in their actions, becoming "so involved with convincing themselves that they are right that they frequently end up behaving irrationally and maladaptively" (Aronson et al. 2018, 178).

[3.2] A common method of reducing dissonance is to dehumanize the target, making their cruelty or harassment acceptable (Aronson et al. 2018, 200–201). Additional deindividuation thanks to online anonymity allows harassers to feel generally free from legal repercussions despite breaking laws that would apply in cases of in-person harassment (Citron 2014), such as threats of bodily harm or dismemberment, stalking, invasion of privacy, or publicly outing or doxing their targets (@freetofic 2020). By convincing themselves that all nonantis are pedophiles, antis can excuse any ill behavior directed toward nonantis, which most often manifests as aggressive racism, misogyny, and homophobia (figure 1). Antis may also describe ways they hope individuals (including minors) will suffer or die for their fictional interests or tell sexual assault victims their assault was deserved as a result of the "corrupt" nature of such interests: "Those who glorify any kind of abuse should go through it before they romanticize it, that way they realize how horrible it is and they will stop. It's 2020 baby it's the year [ship fans] get raped and die!" (Shitthyantireylosspeak 2020).

Twitter thread with names and avatars blacked out.

Figure 1. Screen capture of a Twitter thread illustrating the "freaks of color" incident, 2019.

[3.3] The most dangerous behavior in anti circles is the act of antis urging their targets to commit suicide. This has driven multiple creators to hospitalization (@antifandomtakes 2020) or perhaps even death (@zellamelons 2021). Since the primary creators of transformative fandom are women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ people, it becomes readily apparent how the anti movement seeks to limit the voices of those who are already vulnerable, thus promoting further isolation and violence against them (Mason 2020). Antis may feel more comfortable confronting their own online community members because they lack the societal and systematic protections afforded their true oppressors. This method of punching sideways or down in one's own community is called trashing (Freeman 1976).

4. Assimilating minors

[4.1] One deeply concerning aspect of the anti movement is that the age groups participating appear to be overwhelmingly young—in their teens or early twenties. In 2017, a survey was conducted of members of Voltron: Legendary Defenders (2016–18) fandom, with 29 percent of respondents identifying as anti. Of 581 antis, 92 percent of them were under the age of twenty-four, and 61 percent of them were under eighteen. Ninety-one of the respondents (the majority) were sixteen years old; forty were thirteen years old ("Discourse Demographics Survey" 2017).

[4.2] Antis perpetuate the term "minor" to imply the embodiment of purity, innocence, and naïvety, with minors therefore in need of protection and accommodation; the term "adult," in contrast, is associated with danger, sexuality, and predation. This altered definition of the word "adult" only applies to nonantis, however, not antis (@antifandomtakes 2019a, 2019b). As a result of this self-projection, adult antis can feel emboldened to confront nonanti minors in attempts to help them rectify their supposedly inappropriate sexual expression and interests as expressed within fandom of fictional worlds, thereby enacting behavioral control (figure 2).

Twitter thread with sixteen-year-old's name blacked out.

Figure 2. Screen capture of a Twitter thread with an adult anti harassing a sixteen-year-old, 2020.

[4.3] While antis claim to prioritize the safety of minors above all else, they will still target them with accusations of pedophilia. Age boundaries are firmly drawn between seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds as well (eighteen years indicating adulthood), with some stating that in romantic relationships between the two, it does not matter if the seventeen-year-old is "even a day younger" (@antifandomtakes 2019a). The seventeen-year-old is still a minor, which makes the eighteen-year-old partner a (supposed) pedophile. Consequently, young adults and teens who never had predatory feelings suddenly wonder if they secretly do, fearing their own thoughts as well as the judgment of others: "I was dreading my birthday this year…[be]cause…I turn 18 before [my boyfriend] and I was genuinely petrified I would [be] called a predator…and cried about it" (@stupid_kiddie 2020). In this way, sexual thoughts and feelings become criminal for even minors themselves to express, revealing the inherent antisex rhetoric of antis.

[4.4] Contrary to online safety protocols (Enough Is Enough 2018), anti minors often purposefully seek out and engage with adults they think are sexual predators to argue and debate with them how supposedly gross or freakish their fictional sexual interests are. Some minors also make fake minor-attracted person (MAP) accounts in attempts to target real-life self-admitted pedophiles. One adult anti explained, "It's like To Catch a Predator but with antis being the ones catching the predators…When things get out of hand the adult antis step in…From what I know there's pretty much always an adult anti nearby" (@corusvoid 2021). While some adult antis may have good intentions, it cannot be denied that such behaviors could qualify as child endangerment (Theoharis, n.d.). When adult antis target minors or knowingly encourage and allow minors to participate in such behavior, it places minors in situations that could harm their mental and emotional well-being. Moreover, the possibility of real predators establishing themselves in anti spaces as trustworthy, safe adults among minors also cannot be ignored.

[4.5] There have been cases of antis circulating uncensored pornography in online public spaces as proof of artists' transgressions, thereby exposing minors to the very sexually explicit material they claim to be protecting them from (@lizcourserants 2020). A telltale sign of online sexual predators is desensitization, or deliberately exposing minors to pornography and sexual content (Brandon 2018). Further, the overt misuse and oversaturation of the term "pedophilia," to the extent that it loses all significance from its original context, is arguably another method of desensitization.

[4.6] Redistributing real child pornography in the United States can be punishable by a minimum of five to twenty years in prison (US Department of Justice 2020). However, content that is not based on a real person cannot officially be deemed child pornography, as no real children were harmed (Gilden 2016). Antis seem to not make this distinction, as they view fictional written and drawn characters as real children. Considering this, why then do some antis willfully redistribute the latter content in the first place, if they truly believe it to be criminally illegal and thus worthy of legal repercussions?

5. Pedophilia and anti ideology

[5.1] Centering as it does around online American culture, anti ideology becomes difficult to realistically apply, considering the vast cultural differences in global media consumption. Something that only adults are permitted to watch in the United States could elsewhere be rated as appropriate for teenagers thirteen years and older (Marvin the Robot 2020). Therefore, demanding that strangers on global platforms adhere to highly culturally specific sexual and moral rule sets becomes invasive, unrealistic, and often colonialist.

[5.2] Information control is applied when antis assign and misrepresent the definitions of pedophilia and incest to mark specific targets of their ire (figure 3). Antis believe power imbalances between adult characters are indicative of a writer's secret desire to engage in pedophilia, as they believe adult characters' having less power equates to them being childlike. If someone ages up a character who is a minor (a practice explained in "Aged Up," Fanlore wiki,, antis still believe that an underage character is being sexualized. To antis, even in fiction, any sexual content whatsoever involving a minor, regardless of context, is treated as child pornography; it follows that on the basis of such vague applications, virtually anyone could be implicated (Kylia 2019).

Adult Hetalia figure with two little kids on lap.

Figure 3. Hetalia: Axis Powers (2006–) anti shipper proclaiming, "It doesn't have to be biological to be incestuous!," 2017. Original artwork by Himaruya Hidekaz, 2011, with words added by the anti shipper.

[5.3] Mainstream media depicting teenagers, as well as their sexual encounters, are written by people over eighteen who have at one point been teenagers themselves; such professional script writers are not generally thought to be pedophiles. However, when applying antis' logic, any story, whether a script or a derivative fan artwork, where two children or teens fall in love, get married, or start a family (implying they have had sex) would be considered pedophilia.

[5.4] Further, antis' work does not take into account real-life boundaries. For example, rarely do healthy individuals confuse fiction with reality (Abraham, Cramon, and Schubotz 2008), and many have no desire to act on their fannish interests in the physical world (Gilden 2016). Researchers who have studied the topic of fiction affecting real-life actions have concluded that violent media only has a significant impact on individuals who were already inclined to commit violent behaviors (Aronson et al. 2018). In popular culture, women and LGBTQIA+ individuals create the majority of artworks in transformative fandom, and despite the immense amount of subjectively taboo media created on a global scale since the 1970s in transformative fandom, there has been no proof of correlation of women and LGBTQIA+ people committing higher rates of sexual violence against others as a result of creating or consuming such media.

[5.5] There have, however, been numerous examples wherein the attempt to sanitize behavior and force adherence to strict moral codes did not prevent abusive acts from being committed. Sexual abuse in religious organizations is one of the prime examples of a supposedly morally pure space not necessarily equating to a safe and healthy one (Lanning 2010). Environments where authoritative figures go unquestioned and where fear is instilled to coerce obedience are precisely where many abusers are able to thrive (Nolan 2015). Antis' behavior props up these unfortunate models of coercion to police perceived inappropriate behavior.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] Instead of being given the tools and resources to make safe and educated decisions on a case-by-case basis, teens in anti spaces are called to arms and encouraged to engage in recklessly abusive behavior toward themselves and others over topics they do not yet fully understand while simultaneously spreading troubling ideologic misinformation (Gilden 2016). The overt misuse of criminally charged and consequential topics thus saturates discussions and desensitizes community members, making it far more difficult to figure out who poses a genuine threat in the real world. It also reinforces harmful homophobic and racist stereotypes of who is thought to be predatory and/or a pedophile. If such cult movements are permitted to remain unchecked, these young people could become dangerous adults who disregard factual information and instead use these behaviors to pressure others, including children, to adhere to their irrational and damaging behavioral and emotional demands. The cult structure of antis sets individuals up for failure; the extreme variance and overreach in individual antis' standards means that their ideology becomes impossible to live up to. Real-world harmful effects have been documented in adults and minors alike regarding the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of fans subjected to anti rhetoric, demonstrating just how vital nuanced research is needed in these areas.

[6.2] The moral topics targeted by antis, such as incest, abuse, rape, and pedophilia, of course existed long before modern-day online media, and may still occur in regions without widespread access to internet, television, and other media outlets. The anti movement perpetuates archaic systems of judgment based on personal disgust and region-specific morality, punishing powerless people for their fannish interests and tainting their online communities. Their work does nothing to dismantle harmful systematic institutions; rather, it embraces them, even going so far as to actively harm and destroy members of their own community.

7. References

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