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Research — Digital fan culture researcher Line Nybro Petersen is to head a major European research project on extremism on social media among 45-65-year-olds.
For many years Line Nybro Petersen has scoured internet forums where fans from all over the world celebrate their idols, fabricate new narratives, and write erotic fan fiction. She has not done it for own edification.
She is an associate professor in media studies at the Department of Nordic Studies and Linguistics at the University of Copenhagen, where she has worked on fan culture around the teenage vampire series Twilight, the Norwegian drama series SKAM, and the ageing female fans of the BBC Sherlock Holmes series. She has been interviewed about the courtroom drama of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, and she has recounted the many controversies of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on the radio.
»At the moment I am writing an article about the Free Britney movement, where fans acted as online detectives. They dissected Britney Spears’ whole Instagram account to find clues and evidence that she was living under duress during her father’s long-standing guardianship,« she says.
Line Nybro Petersen’s virtual fieldwork was turned into the book Mediatized Fan Play: Moods, Modes and Dark Play in Networked Communities. She argues in the book that digital fan culture is best understood as play.
»Online fans goof around, fabricate new stories, and compete with each other,« she says.
But this game and these concoctions are also starting to be seen in conversations about politics and online conspiracies, where older generations misunderstand jokes as genuine messages.
This is the starting point for Line Nybro Petersen, who is leading a new major European research project on social media extremism among 45-65-year-olds.
»This age group takes up more and more space on social media, but has not been studied thoroughly. When we look at extremism, we typically look at specific religious groups or try and find out whether young people are being radicalized by computer games. But there are some indications that a larger threat comes from the slightly older group,« she says.
One of Line Nybro Petersen’s arguments in favour of investigating an older age group is her research into the QAnon conspiracy.
is a conspiracy theory that arose in 2017. The central tenet of the theory is that there is a network of powerful, satanic, cannibalistic paedophiles in international society. According to supporters, the network conspired against Donald Trump, and the anonymous character ‘Q’ shared a series of ‘hints’ and prophecies on the image board 4Chan to prove it.
»When I started writing my book, QAnon became a more common phenomenon on Twitter and on the internet in general. I realised that the QAnon phenomenon was very similar to the practices that take place in fan settings. Popular cultural references to The Matrix, Star Trek, role-playing games and so on were a big part of the game. It was a huge mix of references,« says Line Nybro Petersen and explains that the entire QAnon movement began as a role playing game on the 4chan website.
QAnon was originally a LARP (Live Action Role Play) where one or more anonymous users pretended to be a whistleblower. On the 4chan website, it was a well-understood role-playing game, but when QAnon suddenly spread to the rest of the internet, there was no context, and more people started to take it seriously, she says.
»This is not fundamentally different from when fans concoct fan fiction. Then we say that Harry Potter was Snape’s boyfriend. Then we say that Hillary Clinton is a demon. Basically, it’s the same thing. The difference is that there is a group of people who believe in it.«
These people are often from an age group that has not grown up with the internet, and that cannot easily decode what is an internal joke in a narrow subculture, says Line Nybro Petersen. She refers to the storming of the US Congress in the US, where it was primarily middle-aged Americans who took Capitol Hill. It is precisely this group that the new research project is to study in a European context.
»I would like to get hold of them before they take up arms. The people who might be tempted by it. Those who are in these forums, and who take a whiff of extremism, and who play with the idea that it is all the Jews’ fault, or that Bill Gates made the COVID virus. Where you resort to hatred or mistrust of other groups, the government, or the World Health organisation. We want to talk to them before they step over the edge and buy four tons of explosives.«
As there has not been many studies of this age group’s radicalisation and extremism on the internet, the project is also fundamentally about identifying the various networks in Europe.
»We need to pull out a lot of data from across Europe, because we have heard from European colleagues in the police that they lack the tools to find these networks. They lack an overview of who can potentially be troublemakers,« says Line Nybro Petersen.
Another part of the project is about understanding those who »dabble in extremism«. They will set up focus groups in seven countries to investigate any differences between the extremist environments in, for example, the UK, Austria, Belgium, Denmark and Cyprus.
»I reckon that they are very similar, and that social media keep us in states of mind that we like. Even if it involves aggression, mistrust and suspicion. You get tied into the detective work, because it is both fun and enjoyable to geek out and play with it, even though it is based on suspicion or anger.«
The research project has 24 researchers throughout Europe and runs until spring 2026.
»I’m curious as to when the game crosses the boundary and becomes reality. When are you just fooling around, and when do you sincerely believe that Mette Frederiksen is a demon?« she says.
»I don’t fundamentally understand people on the internet who share aggressive rape fantasies or hate rhetoric about black people or Muslims. And I do not fully understand the role that social media platforms play in this context. But I would like to understand what the hell it is that motivates these people. If we don’t understand it, we can’t do anything about it.«