Sometimes a story on the Internet is so good, you tell it over and over again, even if takes forever to explain to people who aren’t really “online,” bless them. That’s what I found myself doing this week with the tale of the semi-dormant Taylor Swift stan account whose owner claimed to be an Israeli teen recently imprisoned for refusing to join the IDF. (My dad: “First of all, who’s Stan?”) The story unfolds in a three-act Twitter thread that went completely viral for its flat affect and outrageous content:
Everything about the way the two accounts interacted in this brief exchange was funny and engrossing: how @LegitTayUpdates revealed her prison stint in a tweet about, of course, prioritizing her satirical Taylor Swift news updates; the lower-caps concern of “omg why”; LegitTayUpdate’s shocking response, that she was apparently jailed for non-violent resistance, which made her “lmao.” The combination of frivolity and gravity, sincerity and irony, politics and pop culture—it created a now rare moment of digital joy in which we, the people who discovered and shared the story, actually felt better about who was online with us and what we were all doing there.
LegitTayUpdates, who asked to go by “N” when we spoke via Twitter DM, says she is a 19-year-old woman from southern Israel. For the past few days, she says, she’s been inundated with media requests and messages of support and denigration from talking openly about the taboo subject of resisting IDF conscription. In Israel, it’s mandatory that both men and women serve in the Defense Forces at 18, and less than one percent of conscripts refuse to enlist—there are a few groups who receive dispensations, including Israel’s Arab population, but N couldn’t prove she was a pacifist (she apparently told them she’d “punch a Nazi”). So on February 1, the account that had been previously posting about Taylor Swift posted about heading to military prison. She says she was there for two months.
Upon release, N tweeted about being back on the Taylor Swift stan scene, and the rest is history. One reason her story went viral is that it was hilarious to see a rabid fan of a notoriously apolitical and milquetoast (don’t be mad at me, N) pop star talking about going to prison for a political stance. (It’s antithetical to stan culture, actually, which has been responsible for chasing people off platforms and bringing Pete Davidson to his breaking point, that a stan show such passion about anything other than the fandom subject.) N’s Gen Z–isms made the pairing of prison resistor and meme-poster even funnier. (“I know Swifties who are lawyers, activists, journalists, doctors, teachers, librarians, software engineers, biochemical engineers, nuclear physicists!” N chided me.)
But more notably, her frank and even glib recounting brought sudden mainstream attention to a lesser-known aspect of one of the world’s longest-running, thorniest conflicts. Middle Eastern peace is an issue so bogged down by history and by the huge scope of its major players—nations, religions, ethnic groups—that individual voices are often hard to hear, though they are most affected by punditry and policy. And when they do get heard, expressing an opinion that isn’t one of those that have defined the conversation for decades on cable news, they are usually met with huge resistance. Somali-American Muslim representative Ilhan Omar’s comments on the Israeli government’s lobbying influence in the United States are a recent example of this. The ensuing debate (which largely played out on Twitter, by the way) was a reminder that the makeup of seemingly warring factions is more complicated than you think; charges of antisemitism and Islamophobia revealed how each phenomenon is discussed and by whom, and that American Jews feel drastically differently about the state of Israel.
LegitTayUpdates similarly offered a little-understood point of view that wrinkles the meta-conflict narrative: that of young Israelis who support Palestinian freedom. N told me she was going to enlist “because that’s what you do here” before she met and spoke with Palestinian teens for the first time, and “heard their stories and their heartbreak. . . . That was a real shifting point. I then noticed some international political coverage about Palestine—Gaza in particular—that I hadn’t been exposed to in the major Israeli media outlets. From there it sort of snowballed.” Her decision has apparently caused tension with friends and family, most of whom don’t know her identity after going viral. N is “terrified of retaliation. I haven’t released much information, my volunteer lawyer has told me to not give away any details about my incarceration or anything that could be traced back to me. Israel is a small country, and if people find my last name, I’m scared of what may happen to my family or friends or, just in general, my future. This story has gone global, so me being doxxed would stay with me for life. That’s quite scary.” Still, she said, “maybe I’ll tell my parents in a few years at some Passover Seder.”
A funny, sardonic, and undeniably real teenage girl (“I’m The Annoying Leftist Bisexual at family dinners”) tweeting about Israel as an “autocracy” and how Palestinian suffrage is a PR nightmare, obviously, for the country’s hard-right, which would prefer international focus on Hamas and terrorism. N’s willingness to speak out under LegitTayUpdates is so captivating because of that unabashed authenticity, the knowledge that she is behind the front lines—we’re seeing a conversation we’re used to watching take place from behind podiums at the UN happen on Twitter in emojis and abbreviations. “I’m a lover of music in general, not just Taylor. I like hiking, my favorite color is either orange or blue, I’m terrified of chickens, and my best subject at school was history,” N says—imagine that on C-SPAN.
It also feels like a moment of purity in the very dark story of how the Internet has helped push its users further and further toward conspiracy, violence, and unreality. A recent spate of antisemitic, Islamophobic, racist, and misogynist terror attacks around the world have been fueled by the Internet’s alt-right digital corners, hyper-destructive chat rooms that are like distorted horror versions of old fan forums. Those wildest narratives like QAnon are sanitized of their most obvious offenses and re-promoted by the likes of Fox News as anodyne conservatism and concern for “family values.” Less violently, but nevertheless insidiously, other stories have underscored how the un-real world of Internet influencers adversely impacts real people (see the Fyre Festival’s devastating wake in the Bahamas). Shared among these incidents is immense profit by technology companies, who sell themselves as objective platforms but are doing whatever they can to remain deregulated and shielded from tax burdens, and to incentivize more posting. Writer, artist, and critic Jenny Odell calls this a corporate “tendency toward aggressive monoculture”; N’s willingness to interrupt her digital life with her very real material one—instead of the other way around—feels, in this context, revolutionary.
LegitTayUpdates is a source of profoundly moving optimism. Though she fears that “Israel is shifting more to the right,” N says—“The new hot party in the upcoming elections is a centrist party, and they’re basically running as ‘we’re not the left and we’re not the right,’”—“When I speak to younger people, I do feel like we’re getting more informed as a whole. For instance, did you know that there are nearly 5 million Palestinians in Palestine? I sure didn’t! A lot of people in Israel (including my family) aren’t even aware of how many people this occupation is effecting.” She’s using her viral fame to fundraise for the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, all while continuing to post parodic T-Swift updates. “Also they sound mad old trying to discredit me because I’m 19 ?? as if IDF soldiers aren’t just 19 year olds with semi[-]automatic rifles ??????,” she tweets of her haters. N epitomizes a kind of New Irony, in which the usual tools of adolescent disaffection are deployed instead to collapse the distance between digital and emotional lives, a knowing, winking earnestness of the generation raised on smartphones, shared by the kids making Green New Deal memes or the survivors-turned-activists of Parkland. The crying emoji stands in for real tears.
A young person engaging critically and actively with the world we’ve inherited and getting joy from her favorite Vine (“the one where the guy nearly drops his croissant”) brought me almost to tears this week. She reminded me, an old millennial, that the Internet helped connect people to the Arab Spring, to Black Lives Matter, to Standing Rock. Which is, of course, what the old fan forums that predated stan culture were once blissfully about: showing up for something. N says, “They can hate me all they want, but I am who I am and I believe in what I believe.”