Nicki Minaj appears to be taking a break from Twitter. The rapper, who has more than 22 million followers on the platform and is known for spending nearly every day joking and bickering with them, has been uncharacteristically silent for the past week. The last entry in her feed is from September 15—a retweet of a fan’s post reading, in part, “When will people learn NICKI MINAJ is NOT going to be backed into any damn corner?”
It all started two days earlier, the evening of the Met Gala, when she tweeted that she wasn’t vaccinated against COVID-19 and wouldn’t attend the event. “If I get vaccinated it won’t [be] for the Met,” she wrote. “It’ll be once I feel I’ve done enough research.” In a confusing series of follow-up tweets, she said she recommended that people get a vaccine if they have to for work. And, well … she said her cousin in Trinidad had a friend who became impotent after getting a vaccine. “His testicles became swollen. His friend was weeks away from getting married, now the girl called off the wedding,” she elaborated. (Minaj later claimed that she skipped the Met Gala not because of her vaccine status, but because she had to care for her infant son—though many people have speculated that her absence was really related to her and her husband’s current legal troubles.)
This was the first time that a celebrity expressed a weird and clearly wrong medical opinion. Just kidding! Just kidding! Just kidding! But the cousin’s friend’s allegedly swollen testicles immediately became a meme and a late-night bit; Anthony Fauci took the time to debunk the claim that COVID-19 vaccines cause impotence, and even Trinidad and Tobago’s government was compelled to weigh in and say that it had no records of anyone coming forward with such a vaccine side effect. Minaj suddenly found herself a new main character in the ongoing vaccine wars, and began accusing the media of lying about her. After Tucker Carlson applauded her on Fox News, she shared part of the segment with a bull’s-eye emoji, then shouted down Twitter critics for calling him a “white supremacist.”
At the same time, Minaj’s mostly young, very online fans—known as the Barbz, after her alter ego Harajuku Barbie—found themselves called to defend her. While fandom is not about idolizing a celebrity to the point of believing everything they say, “Who do you stan?” is a question of identity and worldview. A Nicki Minaj stan who believes in science and the benefit of vaccines is now obligated to find a way to acknowledge or embrace Minaj’s vaccine hesitancy. On Twitter, it was possible to watch fans experience these personal, internal conflicts. And some political actors on the right seemed to see the unfolding events as something more: an opportunity for them to steer the force of stan culture.
Carlson is not a natural ally of a New York City celebrity with millions of Millennial and Gen Z fans, but he appeared tickled by the idea that the Barbz might undercut the Biden administration’s vaccine push. In a conversation with the right-wing personality Candace Owens, he attested to knowing close to “zero” about Minaj, but praised her as a self-made success and a “savage.” Owens also complimented Minaj, saying, “She’s showing her fans in real time what we have been saying for a very long time: that there are people who will control what you’re allowed to say, what you’re not allowed to say.”
That was the exact spin the Barbz were already putting on Minaj’s words. She was just asking questions and exercising her freedom of speech, they argued on Twitter, and she never, ever said she was an anti-vaxxer. The Barbz started using the hashtag #IStandWithNicki to express their continued support, and promised that they would not allow her to be “oppressed” or “silenced.” (Within the fandom, there was then a mini-backlash to the response to the backlash: If you were really a Barb, would you need to clarify that you “stand” with Nicki?)
Some of Minaj’s fans tried to lead her to better information, or shared personal stories about their positive experiences with the vaccines. But mostly they adopted her rhetoric and started looking for evidence that the vaccines were more dangerous than they’d previously known. They fretted over censorship and pressures to “comply” with the government’s demands. “I hope this situation opens everyone’s eyes to the fact that THERE IS AN AGENDA,” one fan wrote in a tweet that went viral. “The government wants to push the vaccine as much as possible & anyone in their way will be censored. nicki minaj did not downplay the effectiveness of the vaccine, just asked questions. OPEN UR EYES.” This tweet predictably attracted supportive replies from anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists ostensibly from outside the Nicki Minaj fandom who seemed to see it as a recruitment opportunity, while other powerful fandoms were quick to jump in and point out the worst possibilities. According to one Taylor Swift fan account, Minaj is “a few tweets away from turning barbz into an alt-right organization.”
This is far from the first time a fandom has gotten involved in a political fight. Last summer, for instance, groups of pop-music fans—led by BTS’s massive fandom—became media darlings because of their enthusiasm for pranking Donald Trump and, during the Black Lives Matter protests, police departments and white supremacists. (They were also briefly interested in joining forces with the famed hacktivist collective Anonymous.) Those fans were celebrated by the left for using tactics largely pioneered by internet trolls—spamming their enemies, driving trending hashtags, coordinating in private to manipulate something public.
But these tactics can be used to push essentially any message. And now we’re witnessing early signs that the right has noticed ways in which stans could be valuable. Just a few days before the Met Gala controversy, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—a nonprofit focused on college-campus free-speech issues, funded by right-wing heavyweights such as the Charles Koch Institute—published an open letter to Harvard in defense of a Nicki Minaj fan. The fan had tweeted a screenshot of an email from the university asking him to take down a flag that was hanging in his dorm’s common room window, which showed Minaj in a blue bikini, saluting the Stars and Stripes. “While perhaps not everyone at Harvard is a Barb, everyone at Harvard has the right to free speech,” an officer for the foundation wrote.
Anybody who would try to harness the power of the Barbz likely doesn’t know what they’re really getting into. The Barbz have a reputation as one the largest and at times meanest online fandoms. In 2018, they harassed a music blogger so viciously—some fans sent death threats that also included photos of the writer’s young daughter—that it was covered in The New York Times. Like the persona-shifting rapper they love, the fandom has many faces. Its members can be ludicrously self-righteous, but they can also be playful and self-deprecating, and they often make tongue-in-cheek comments about how frequently Minaj calls them in to do battle on her behalf. They mostly hated Trump, and many of them spent the 2020 Democratic primary tweeting #BarbzforBernie. It can sometimes be difficult to tell when they’re joking—what should you make of a car that bears, on its back window, a sticker reimagining the “Back the Blue” logo in pink, reading Back the Barbz?
The Barbz are certainly embattled and defensive, and maybe some of them could turn into right-wing reactionaries. But their defense of Minaj’s rhetoric isn’t really about politics. It’s about their shared affinities and their sense of self. “I think we’re now more likely to read political intent behind fan actions that might not be political in and of themselves,” says Lori Morimoto, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia who studies fan culture. “When [a] celebrity is attacked, it can feel personal in a very real way.” Right-wing commentators may hope that the Barbz are in the midst of a lasting ideological transformation. But really, they’re still mostly here to stan.
It won’t be long until the Barbz move on to their next fight—which will almost certainly have little to do with vaccines, and even less to do with Tucker Carlson.