Conflict is crowded. They say every story has two sides, but that hinges on the assumption that any two people’s dissension will remain insulated between them. We welcome outside voices into our disagreements all the time, seeking validation from whoever will side with our stance. But when those two sides are public figures with millions of followers and content-starved audiences watching along in anticipation of the next bombshell, those interpersonal battles become sporting events in the arena of social media. Hailey Bieber versus Selena Gomez is the current matchup on the field — and the public’s inherent need to pick sides made it certain they wouldn’t be out there alone.
“We’re starting women’s month, and we’re supposed to be thinking about women’s appreciation and great contributions of women and focusing on all these things that arguably are more impactful, collectively, for women,” mediator and conflict resolution expert Damali Peterman tells Rolling Stone, detailing a specific manifestation of toxic femininity. “Instead, the focus is on drama – old drama with younger women – which is dominating the news cycle because there’s not a lot to talk about.”
Without the foundation of the past, the current overflow of Gomez versus Bieber drama crumbles. In 2011, Hailey Baldwin, now 26 years old, was a proud fan of her future husband Justin Bieber and his relationship with ex-girlfriend Gomez. But when rumors spread in 2015 that they were dating, a year before they actually went public, his on-again-off-again situationship with Gomez complicated the conversation we’re still having nearly a decade later. Timelines of the relationships have been called into question, with fandoms seemingly unable to let go of the past — despite both Gomez and Hailey separately and publicly insisting there is no bad blood between them.
For years, fans have used old interview clips and social media screenshots to back their claims that Hailey is mimicking Gomez’s fashion, her ideologies, and her behaviors, likening it to the plot of Obsession. On the flip side, Hailey’s defenders have used, and continue to use, those same tactics to paint Gomez as the inevitably bitter “other woman” who can’t seem to move on. In the midst of it all, both sides are pulling in source material from people like Kylie Jenner and Taylor Swift, looking toward the best friends to gather what might have gone down. Justin, meanwhile, has gone relatively unscathed, with the attention remaining securely focused on the women.
In a way, it was actually TikTok users who blew the whistle that divided everyone tuning in to the apparent feud between the two camps, whether intentionally or by way of the For You page. TikToker Nuha El-Quesny has racked up more than 26 million views across three videos on the app dissecting Eyebrow Gate, the apparent shading of Gomez by Hailey and Jenner in a series of Instagram story posts.
“U guys are making something out of nothing,” Jenner commented on one video. Gomez even agreed in a reply. But that same day, the singer also commented on a video that described Hailey as a “mean girl” for apparently gagging at the mention of Swift’s name in a clip from at least five years ago.
Often in response to rampant fan culture, Peterman explains, there’s a sense of “wanting to not be silent because sometimes silence is seen as acceptance or admission.” When Gomez announced a break from social media the following day, responding to the drama with “I’m 30 and am too old for this,” the army of fans and spectators that built itself up to defend her didn’t even need her in the battle anymore. The fight has, in many ways, taken on a life of its own outside of the restraints of normal fandom-based drama.
“There’s a risk that the posters have when they’re posting about someone else’s conflict, especially conflicts that don’t impact you in any way,” Peterman explains. A few videos about eyebrows quickly expanded into fans and self-proclaimed celebrity reporters on TikTok tying the current incident back to years-old interview soundbites and comments from Hailey and Gomez — all with hundreds of comments, thousands of likes, and millions of views. “This is not always about who’s right and wrong, but you’re loyal to a fault,” she says. “You want to show that you are on the right side of this argument.”
Hailey’s follower count on Instagram has been tanking for the past week. So far, she’s lost nearly one million followers. In that same period, Gomez gained 10 million new followers, making her the most followed woman on the app, just ahead of Jenner, who also lost an estimated one million and even saw her old friends Jordyn Woods and Pia Mia pulled into the mix to make clear whose team they were on (spoiler: it wasn’t Team Bieber).
If there was a permanently true and finite outcome to these types of faceoffs — a clear winner backed by data and scores — people would be willing to put their money on the table in a bet backing their projected champion. Since there isn’t, these third-party instigators seek refuge and validation in bustling comment sections.
“It’s not even the initial video that is the most problematic. It’s all the comments,” Peterman adds. “People then go to TikTok not to see the original but to see the comments. To see how funny the comments are, and how mean the comments are. The comments actually take on more of a focal point than the initial posts.” And like most conflicts, the vitriol doesn’t stay contained in one place.
“JB please control your wife before we call the animal control department,” one person wrote beneath Justin’s latest Instagram post, receiving almost 3,000 likes. On Hailey’s latest, a photo carousel celebrating his 29th birthday, one user simply wrote: “Wizards of Waverly Place.” It has nearly 7,000 likes. “That’s why people engage in the back and forth, because there’s going to be someone who agrees with your perspective,” Peterman says. “And there’s something about that mentality of ‘I’m not wrong’ or ‘someone else agrees with me’ that makes you want to go forward.”
Cycling through potential explanations for why both fans and onlookers alike often find themselves so deeply invested in other people’s problems, Peterman considers reasonings ranging from loyalty to another person and distraction from everyday life to having empathy, or even a savior complex, that ties defending others into someone’s own self-importance. Through that, fan armies become exactly that — armies — and even the average media consumer gets swept into the draft.
With a pop culture audience deeply obsessed with public conflict, social media offers endless opportunities for the emergence of confirmation bias. Especially when the source material is being served on a silver platter to users who have already engaged with similar posts, it’s easy to find and interpret any evidence as an argument for your side.
It’s the same sense of assumed responsibility Britney Spears fans displayed when they recently called a wellness check to the singer’s home after she deactivated her Instagram account. Last year, some TikTok users built followings around covering Tory Lanez’s trial for shooting Megan Thee Stallion, often spreading misinformation in the process. The year before, the matchup was Olivia Rodrigo and Sabrina Carpenter, who barely responded to the drama surrounding their love triangle with Joshua Bassett — but their fans definitely did.
The problem with that, Peterman says, is “everyone has a different way that they respond to conflict, whether they’re the initiator or the recipient.” She notes that these external responses often mirror the way spectators imagine they would feel if they were in the situation, including the extent to which it would impact their mental health. “Sometimes people [will think], ‘I wouldn’t be depressed if people wrote negative things about me. That doesn’t matter. That wouldn’t affect me,’” she adds. “But it might affect someone else.”
Hailey recently spoke about the PTSD and anxiety she experienced after being admitted to the hospital last year when a blood clot in her brain began causing stroke-like symptoms. Gomez, who launched the Rare Impact Fund to raise money for mental health services, speaks candidly and often about her struggle with lupus, a chronic inflammation-causing autoimmune disease. And three years ago, Bieber revealed he was diagnosed with Lyme disease and chronic mononucleosis.
“These conflicts have the ability to be crippling, even if they’re just if they’re not in their face, but rather at a distance to technology,” Peterman adds. It’s perfectly reasonable, when the stakes begin to feel too high, that they would step away from the online conversation and ask: Does this matter?
“The answer might be, if it affects your bottom line — meaning what people think about you is important because they’re the people buying your music or your makeup — then you care,” Peterman says. “But then the next question should be: Does it really, though?” Since the beginning of the Gomez versus Bieber drama cycle, Google Trends data has shown a 575 percent global increase in searches for the singer’s Rare Beauty products. The brand’s account has grown by more than 500,000 followers on both Instagram and TikTok.
Gomez’s bottom line is fine. Hailey will survive the loss of a couple hundred thousand followers, even a million. Justin — like most men in the midst of a conflict between two women — will emerge relatively unscathed. There are no referees to call the match at the end of the day, so it goes on and on until word travels of another battle in a different arena.
“This is old news,” Peterman says. “Let social media feed itself, and very soon, something else will happen.”