Before "Leaving Neverland" had even aired on HBO early this month, dozens of London's iconic double-decker buses bore an ominous message from Michael Jackson's fans.
"Facts don't lie," they read, accompanied by an outsize photo of the late King of Pop's face. "People do."
The tab for the ads was picked up by the MJInnocent campaign, run by four Jackson superfans who had gotten to know one another over years trailing the pop star. They had joined together to discredit the two men who, in the documentary, allege that the pop singer sexually abused them for years while they were children.
Anika Kotecha is one of those fans. A 34-year-old London lawyer and mother of two, she attended Jackson's 2005 abuse trial in California while in college, met the pop star and even visited his home.
"I think it's a huge misconception that Michael Jackson fans are crazy or a reflection of Wacko Jacko," she said in a phone interview. "But, actually, that's not the case at all."
After "Leaving Neverland" aired, Oprah Winfrey praised the documentary, radio stations pulled Jackson's songs from the air, and "The Simpsons" announced it would bury an episode that featured Jackson's voice. Louis Vuitton, which had, in a bit of unfortunate timing, just showed a fall collection inspired by Jackson - replete with glittering gloves and T-shirts emblazoned with his iconic dance moves - last week shelved the designs.
But Kotecha and legions of other fans are steadfast. "Ironically, for someone whose entire career was based on his voice, he no longer has a voice," she added. "And we are that for him at the moment."
For those less invested in celebrity culture, superfans' public and strenuous defense of accused stars can be baffling, even distasteful. The Me Too movement, which unearthed numerous stories of sexual misconduct, has made many people more inclined to believe accusers.
But the Twitter warriors and the courtroom protesters lay bare the dramatically transforming relationship between celebrity and fan. And they highlight growing distrust in the fairness of the criminal-justice system.
Last week, as "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett appeared in a Chicago courtroom, a handful of defenders perched outside in the blustery March weather to shout "Justice for Jussie." The actor entered a not-guilty plea to charges of lying to authorities about an alleged hate crime attack that police say Smollett orchestrated himself.
When news of R&B singer R. Kelly's indictment on 10 counts of felony sex abuse in a case involving four young victims rippled across the country last month, the hashtag #FreeRKelly began trending on Twitter. Fans had been showing support outside Kelly's various court appearances for years.
Kristian Pisciotta, 24, a waitress in New York's Dutchess County, watched "Surviving R. Kelly," the six-part Lifetime docuseries that shared stories alleging that the 52-year-old singer had sex with underage girls and controlled the women with whom he had relationships. While others praised the series and journalist Gayle King for her televised interview with Kelly, Pisciotta took to Twitter to decry the "witch hunt" against the singer, and Jackson, fretting that the trial-by-documentary phenomenon was akin to smear campaigns.
"What I saw was a man who made mistakes like we all have and who's being extorted," she said in a phone interview, regarding Kelly. "I love the Me Too movement, because I'm a woman, and I can relate, and I appreciate everyone's struggle. At the same time, I don't want it to be taken advantage of."
"This cancel culture, this call-out culture, it makes a lot easier for this whole thing to gain traction," Pisciotta said of Kelly's situation. She took to the internet to research Kelly's story, including his 2008 child-pornography trial, in which he was acquitted. "I don't know the truth," she said. "All I know is he went on trial, and he was found not guilty."
Even when a celebrity is accused of a crime, "the super-loyal fans, they just don't believe it," said Mara S. Aruguete, a psychology professor at Lincoln University in Missouri who has studied fan culture for nearly two decades. "They feel like the accusers are being really unfair and that he's not going to get a fair trial. They say, 'He couldn't have done that.' "
Most casual fans of accused celebrities aren't going out of their way to defend them, she said. But others increasingly feel intertwined with their heroes and privy to details lesser fans somehow are not. "Our research bears that out," said Aruguete. "They really do feel like they have a personal relationship - they really do feel like he's innocent."
Most Jackson fans predate social media but now have more access than ever to information (or disinformation, depending on what side you're on). They've started fan accounts and deployed hashtags such as #LeavingNeverlandLies to rebut the claims against Jackson. They post court documents and talking points about the film, unearthing details "like private investigators," as Kotecha put it.
Plus, for today's celebrities, the carefully managed walls around them are breaking down, thanks to Twitter and Instagram. Many stars have employed social media to seem like relatable friends to their fans. This sense of intimacy has given rise to "stans," a breed so obsessive their name seems to hint at both stalker and fan.
A few extreme stans can go to shocking lengths to defend celebrities. Singer Ariana Grande pleaded with her zealous followers last year to "be gentler" after they inundated her ex-boyfriend, actor Pete Davidson, with hateful messages and posts. When Justin Bieber lost the Grammy for best new artist in 2011 to jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding, Beliebers mobbed Spalding's Wikipedia page to malign her. "Go die in a hole," wrote one.
When Oronike Odeleye co-founded the #MuteRKelly campaign in 2017 to urge streaming services and music fans to phase out Kelly's music, the stans fought back with their own hashtag: #PlayRKelly. (Streams of music by Kelly and Jackson rose markedly in the days immediately after their respective documentaries aired, according to Nielsen data.)
Odeleye has empathy for her online critics, who she said have myriad reasons for their defensiveness.
"There is a feeling that black people, and black men in particular, are targeted for this kind of media scrutiny that other men of their stature, men of other races, do not receive. I understand that," she said.
Besides, "it's hard to look at your idols as people and divorce yourself of the emotions that you feel when you think about the thing they have contributed to your life. R. Kelly ... he is the music that your aunt played at her wedding, he is the music your daughter sang at her graduation."
As for Jackson, she wondered, "How can you think about him and not think about the joy you got from all of his decades of music?"
But, Odeleye said, the defenders are treading a slippery course toward willful ignorance. "They are like, 'I am not going to watch this R. Kelly documentary, I'm going to blatantly disengage from all of that, so I can still enjoy him,' or they're going to find a way to make excuses. So they're going to blame the victims, they're going to blame the parents, they're going to blame the lawyers."
Kotecha said her faith in Jackson is hardly that blind. "Why we would stand up for him and spend our time fighting for him is because of the injustice. It also worries me: If we can treat someone on this level this way - completely ignore the presumption of innocence - what does that mean for the small guy who is wrongly accused?"
The Washington Post