Technology

The Britney Spears fans pushing conspiracy theories


This article is a collaboration between New York magazine and Vox.

Was Britney Spears in trouble? It was January 24, 2023, more than a year after the conservatorship that had controlled her life for 13 years was formally dissolved, and the enigmatic pop star had just deleted her Instagram. For weeks, she’d seemingly been sending signals that things were not okay. Now, here it was, a clear cry for help: an Instagram post of a sports car with a caption that mentioned its exact make and model — a Porsche 911 Carrera. What was the point of listing the model of the car if not to ask her devoted followers to call 911? For a group of Free Britney supporters, it was confirmation that Spears had, in fact, never been freed at all.

Late that night, two fans met up on a TikTok livestream to discuss the post. When a commenter suggested they call a non-emergency line to ensure Spears’s safety, the others allowed her to join the stream. They listened as she conveyed their concerns to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office. “Why do you feel that she needs to be checked on?” asked the attendant on the other end.

“There’s been suspicious activity online, and now her account has been deleted,” said the caller.

“Are you related to her?”

“I am not.”

“Don’t be nervous, girl, you got it,” one of the other people on the stream said as the attendant put them on hold. “We need to do this,” said the other, reassuring the caller and possibly themselves.

To the loosely connected cross section of fans identified by hashtags like #BritneyIsNotFree, #WhereIsBritney, and #FindBritney, there was something strange about Spears’s new life. She was still working and hanging out with some of the same people she had during the conservatorship. Wouldn’t she have wanted a fresh start? Fans couldn’t shake the suspicion that something was off in the photos and videos of her 2022 wedding. Why were all these celebrities whom she didn’t seem to know in attendance? And was it possible the Spears they had been seeing on Instagram — the one in pictures that were often blurry — wasn’t the real Britney at all?

One theory, spread on TikTok and Instagram over the past year, has proposed that Spears is being held against her will in a mental health facility, which would sound far-fetched had it not already happened once before: In April 2019, Spears entered a treatment center, reportedly for “emotional distress” over her father’s health issues. When an anonymous source claiming to be a paralegal involved with Spears’s legal team told the podcast Britney’s Gram the performer was being held in the facility because a photo had surfaced of her driving a car, the media, including this magazine, framed it as a conspiracy theory. But last August, Spears uploaded a 22-minute audio file to YouTube corroborating parts of the source’s account and alleging her father had threatened her with lawyers if she didn’t agree to go quietly. “I wanted to scream, and I wanted to get out,” she said. “I kind of stopped believing in God at that time.”

And then there were all the bizarre stories in the news. In mid-January, TMZ published a video of Spears in an LA restaurant with a headline describing her behavior as “manic,” despite the fact that the video only showed her holding a menu in front of her face to avoid being filmed. Free Britney advocates were furious; it seemed like the media, fed stories by the people around her, were trying to make her appear to be an untrustworthy narrator.

All of which is to say the trio’s call to police wasn’t only because she’d deleted her Instagram. It was simply the latest in a series of what they believed were earnest appeals for help. So they tried to offer it. Their call to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office resulted in a wellness check at Spears’s home. Upon investigating, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office said, “We don’t believe that Britney Spears is in any kind of harm or any kind of danger.”

By the next day, the fans who had made the call were almost as reviled among the Britney fandom as those responsible for her conservatorship. Not many people had watched the TikTok livestream at the time, but a fan account posted a clip of the 911 call to Twitter, where it went viral. “These are the ‘fans’ that called the cops on Britney because she deleted her Instagram account..y’all know what to do!” read the tweet. Even Spears responded. “I love and adore my fans but this time things went a little too far and my privacy was invaded,” she wrote in a statement. “During this time in my life, I truly hope the public and my fans who I care so much about can respect my privacy moving forward.”

The police call was a turning point within the fandom, making clear there were lines fans could not cross, and to question Spears’s personal life was to cross one of them. Free Britney had always been a grassroots, somewhat anarchic movement, one that had undoubtedly accomplished impressive change and championed the rights of conservatorship-abuse victims. Until November 2021, when Spears was freed, its followers at least shared the goal of getting her out of the conservatorship. More than any other fandom, it made the case for the power of a parasocial relationship, for the ways in which fans are protectors of those they follow. Now, when it should be taking its victory lap, Free Britney has splintered into distinct factions, each of which believes the other has turned its back on the original mission: helping Britney Spears.

The first music video Brennen White remembers seeing on MTV was “ …Baby One More Time,” the 1998 bubblegum-pop single that catapulted the then-16-year-old Spears to global superstardom. “That was very impactful for me, to see somebody that came across very confident and owned her sexuality and who she was,” says White, who’s now 32. Like Britney, he grew up in Louisiana, and she reminded him of girls he knew as a kid. “I always felt like she could have been one of my friends.”

Today, the Britney fandom knows him by another name: @RealC0CKy, one of the most determined advocates of what I’ll refer to as Free Britney 2.0, the Free Britney subgroup that believes Spears is not yet truly free. He estimates that he spends around 30 hours per week investigating Britney’s situation, between researching and talking to sources, posting on social media, and appearing on podcasts. White has been involved with the Free Britney movement since 2009, when the conversation was taking place largely on the fan message board BreatheHeavy, which remains active today. He isn’t on it anymore, though. “They’re definitely in bed with Britney’s team,” he says, the “they” being BreatheHeavy and “Britney’s team” being “Team Con” — the people who presided over her conservatorship. As the Free Britney community describes it, Team Con includes Spears’s father, Jamie, and the rest of Britney’s immediate family; Lou Taylor, the Tri Star Sports and Entertainment founder and architect of Britney’s conservatorship; and her former court-appointed lawyer, Samuel Ingham. They also suspect people who’ve had some connection to Spears over the past 13 years but no discernible connection to the conservatorship, including anyone involved with her agency, CAA; Cassie Petrey, who runs the company that helps manage Spears’s social accounts; and Cade Hudson, Spears’s longtime friend and, as of 2022, her manager.

Over the phone, White speaks in a Southern accent with a dry, provocative wit. Like most who believe Spears is not free, he uses pithy nicknames for the major players in her world, ranging from the sort-of-funny (“Loucifer” refers to Lou Taylor, who is Enemy No. 1) to the outright cruel (he has referred to Petrey as “Fatssie Petrey”). White has been threatened and doxxed multiple times but views this as a sign he’s asking the right questions. When I ask if any of this has affected him, he deadpans, “No. I live in an open-carry state. I’m good.”

When White says BreatheHeavy has been corrupted by Team Con, he’s really talking about one person: its founder, Jordan Miller, 35, one of the first people to popularize the Free Britney movement. Miller began signing off his posts with “Free Britney!!!” in early 2009, years before the slogan took off. It was people like Miller who first noticed the oddities of Spears’s situation — the fact that she was not allowed to have a cell phone or to drive — and alerted the rest of the world to what would become one of the biggest celebrity scandals of the 21st century. White was never quite friends with Miller, he says, but they had been on good terms, exchanging messages on BreatheHeavy every so often. Things changed in 2019, when White says Miller began removing BreatheHeavy threads when users questioned Spears’s safety or talked about certain members of her team. “He claims to be a major player in the Free Britney movement, but all I ever saw him do was shut down conversations and protect her team,” White says.

These days, Miller is more focused on the world outside Free Britney. “A lot of us are in the boat where we need a second to allow Britney to process things and post freely,” he says. He lives in Las Vegas, where he works in marketing for Amazon, and denies most of what White says about him. He has a relatively lax approach to moderating the site, he says, shutting down threads only when the conversations become nasty (say, commenting on Spears’s body). He doesn’t recall many back-and-forths with White. Miller does, however, remember that at some point, he blocked White. “I didn’t want to feel that negativity,” he says. “He was a loud troll.”

White believes he’s simply looking out for Spears, and that anyone who could possibly have a financial interest in her work is suspect. Spears’s conservators were indeed profiting — while Jamie earned more than $6 million throughout his role as conservator (and petitioned for $30 million in legal fees), Spears was given a $2,000 weekly allowance. White worries the people around her could still be forcing her to work so they can make money off it. “We’re about two years out since her alleged freedom, and there’s still not a single criminal charge that’s been filed,” he says. “And we definitely didn’t think she’d be placed in a ‘care plan.’”

The “care plan” or “termination plan” refers to a sealed document meant to help Spears adjust to post-conservatorship life. It was developed by one of her former conservators, Jodi Montgomery, and her medical doctors in anticipation of the end of the conservatorship “to ensure that there are guidelines in place for supportive decision-making to help her adjust and transition to life outside the Conservatorship,” according to Montgomery’s legal filing. It is sealed “away from the prying eyes of the public” because, as it notes, it contains sensitive and confidential information about Spears’s health and her two sons.

Free Britney activists like Miller saw the care plan as simply a temporary legal step to help Britney adjust to her new life. Termination plans are standard at the end of conservatorships, explains Tamar Arminak, a family lawyer for actor Amanda Bynes, who was in a conservatorship for nine years before it was terminated in 2022. (Spears’s lawyer Mathew Rosengart would not comment on the record.) Still, the care plan aroused suspicion among adherents of Free Britney 2.0, who believed it could be a secret quasi-conservatorship, hidden from public view under the guise of keeping Spears’s medical history private. They worried that because Spears had testified that Montgomery forced her to see a therapist and a psychiatrist three times a week during the conservatorship, she could not be trusted with Spears’s well-being (Arminak points out that Montgomery’s role as personal conservator made her responsible for devising a plan, alongside Spears, for what her post-conservatorship life would look like). Another rumor spread that the conservatorship might secretly still be active in Hawaii, where Spears frequently vacations. Arminak says that’s not so: “The minute the original conservatorship terminates, it terminates.”

If one event galvanized Free Britney 2.0, it was Spears’s wedding to Sam Asghari, the Iranian American personal trainer and actor whom she met on the set of her 2016 video for “Slumber Party.” White calls it “the wedding from hell.” He had already suspected Asghari was using Spears for her money (he and other “Sam antis,” a subset of Free Britney that dislikes Asghari, refer to him as “Scam,” “Scram,” or “Sham”). When they married, on June 9, 2022, fans pored over the footage and pointed out the oddities: Why, for instance, were there so many beautifully shot portraits of Asghari and only grainy pictures of Spears? None of Spears’s children were in attendance, while a strange assortment of celebrities were — some, like Paris Hilton and Madonna, had long, public histories with the pop star, while others, like Ansel Elgort and Selena Gomez, didn’t. And why did the wedding take place at Spears’s home? “The woman who’s been conserved in this prison house is choosing to get married in the prison house?” White asks.

Scariest of all, hours before the ceremony, Spears’s ex-husband Jason Alexander broke into her home armed with a knife and refused to leave the property, streaming it all on Instagram Live. Some within Free Britney 2.0 viewed Alexander as a savior, someone who was trying to rescue Britney and “expose the truth” about the wedding. In an Instagram post the next day, Spears said she’d had a panic attack the morning of her wedding — confirmation, they believed, that even she knew something about it was weird. “We watched clips on TV shows where celebrities described it as ‘Britney’s fairy-tale wedding,’ but it didn’t feel like a fairy tale,” says Trey Serna, 39, a morning news anchor for a South Texas ABC affiliate and a popular Free Britney 2.0 TikToker.

The photos and videos made for irresistible bait everywhere online, but particularly on TikTok, which has an unparalleled ability to turn a single idea into a megaviral trend in a matter of hours. In the months after the wedding, many users who had only tangentially paid attention to the original Free Britney movement watched videos that suggested Spears was still being controlled or, worse, wasn’t really Spears at all. The wedding was a crucial recruiting tool on the best recruiting platform in history, one that often prioritizes the loudest voices in the room, regardless of whether what they’re saying is true.

When she’s not working at her job in corporate finance or posting on her dog’s TikTok, 23-year-old Anita Datta moonlights as the host of one of the largest — and most extreme — Free Britney 2.0 TikTok accounts, @BritneyIsNotFree. She had been seeing content about how Spears wasn’t truly freed since the conservatorship ended, but she only started posting about it a few months after the wedding. She’s one of the many people on the app who believe the Spears we have seen on Instagram, at her wedding, and in other public sightings isn’t actually Spears but a combination of AI re-creations and body doubles, trotted out while the real Spears is kept somewhere else, possibly a mental health facility. Datta cites Spears’s June 2021 court testimony as “the last time where I can say for sure for a fact she is the one speaking.” Many of her most viral videos invite viewers to inspect each frame of Spears’s Instagram posts, pointing out glitches, lags, or other inconsistencies as evidence that the real Britney is not the person we’re seeing.

More than a year later, she’s still regularly posting about the wedding. A video from July of this year titled “Proof Britney Spears Was Replaced by an A.I. on Her Wedding Day” starts with a screenshot of Spears and Asghari walking down the aisle. “Look at the hands of Britney and Sam,” Datta says, her voice distorted by a TikTok filter. “Britney’s hand clearly blends into his hand, into his coat jacket. And her thumb color is the same as his skin color.” (Spears was wearing white fingertip-less gloves.) She zooms out to Kathy Hilton, mother of Paris, in the background of the image, standing and clapping at the end of the ceremony, with part of her body obscured by the church pew. “I have no clue why Kathy Hilton was even at the wedding, but her leg is missing,” Datta says. “Something really weird is going on.” She asks her followers to please let her know in the comments if they have a reasonable explanation why “Kathy Hilton doesn’t have a leg.”

Miller and the rest of the OG Free Britney crowd consider this newer faction to be largely conspiracists looking for online clout. (Serna finds this laughable: “I hate to say it, but I was TikTok famous before Britney.”) They sometimes refer to them as “BAnon.” By continuing to share theories and ask questions about Britney’s safety on her Instagram posts, they say, Free Britney 2.0 is stigmatizing what is likely the result of an unfathomably difficult and complicated life. “You go on TikTok, and they refuse to accept that a woman in her 40s might have mental health issues,” says Jared Lipscomb, a makeup artist and podcaster who started hearing whispers within the hair-and-makeup community about the ways Spears was being heavily managed and controlled in 2013. “They’d rather believe she’s an alien than the fact that she’s going through a traumatic experience.”

Spears’s Instagram has always been a place where fans go for clues about how she’s actually doing. Between viral Facebook-core image macros about positivity and self-love and cute photos of flowers or the phases of the moon, Spears dances, twirls, and shows off her bikinis and bralettes in dizzily edited videos and heavily filtered photos taken at unusual angles. Hers is the opposite of a typical celebrity social media account: It’s chaotic in a fun way and in a way that can arouse concern, all of which is deeply confusing for fans who are used to seeing their starlets post careful, publicist-approved content. Over the course of the conservatorship, Free Britney activists developed detailed theories about messages Spears was sending via her Instagram posts. In the most famous example, from June 2020, one commenter wrote, “if you need help wear yellow in your next video”; a few days later, Spears did. The same held true after the conservatorship: In November 2022, on the anniversary of its ending, one Twitter user wrote, “Britney’s gram is filled with cries for help. Some are cryptic but some are really very clear. If you’re not seeing it, you are choosing to ignore Britney herself. Do not celebrate freedom today.” They posted a screenshot of a video from October 2022 in which Britney dances to a song called “S.O.S.” and, at one point, spells out the letters with her hands.

Since this past December, Spears has only rarely left her Instagram comments open. She turned them off after posting a series of nude photos and pictures of herself in her great-great-grandmother’s veil; on one post, a top comment was a theory that Spears was being locked in her house and that all of her videos were being secretly recorded from behind a mirror. Even fellow celebrities had theories — after Spears posted a photo of her sister, Jamie Lynn, former Bachelorette star Kaitlyn Bristowe wrote, “Ok well now we know who’s running her account. Cough Jamie cough.” On December 21, when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “Someone please go check on Britney Spears,” Spears reposted the plea on her Instagram Stories and wrote, “It saddens me to see things about me from people who don’t know me!!!” A month later, after briefly deleting her Instagram, she explained on Twitter that she’d shut down her account “because there were too many people saying I looked like an idiot dancing and that I looked crazy. Honestly, I was doing my best, but it disturbed me to see people freely talk about it on TV … yep, it hurt my feelings.”

On the rare occasion when she does leave her posts open, a scroll through the comment section will reveal tens of thousands of people arguing over whether the “real” Spears is the one posting or, alternatively, pleading with her to “prove” she’s happy and free. They point out the gap between her two front teeth that seems to have mysteriously appeared; they wonder if the Spears with the gap is actually a body double. They ask why her videos have such an amateurish quality, why her hair doesn’t appear to be professionally done, and why, if she’s always on vacation, as her Instagram photos suggest, there are no photos taken by paparazzi, who had always seemed able to track her location 24/7. (The paparazzi have, in fact, taken photos of Spears several times since her conservatorship ended, and when they do, Spears pleads with them to stop.) Mostly, they wonder why so many of Spears’s photos are recycled from previous content.

In December 2022, Serna published the first in what is now an 88-part series called “Free Britney… again?” in which he points out how, a year after her freedom, Spears was still posting the same dancing videos and long captions to Instagram as she was during the conservatorship. “Either she’s being held at a facility and they’re posting old videos so that nobody says anything — but if they’re trying to do that, they’re not doing a good job,” Datta says.

If Spears isn’t in control of her Instagram, who is? For a long time, it was shaped at least in part by Petrey, the founder of the digital marketing firm Crowd Surf, which has worked with Spears since 2009. White believes Petrey is manipulating Spears’s Instagram, making her seem unwell by posting semi-nude photos and provocative captions. He also believes Petrey, along with Spears’s manager, Hudson, have fed unflattering stories to tabloids like TMZ, Page Six, and the Daily Mail to make it seem as though Spears needs to go back into a conservatorship. (At times, Free Britney 2.0 theories directly contradict each other — why would Team Con need to invent a reason for the public to believe she was mentally unwell and “in need” of a conservatorship if she was still in one?)

The truth, according to a person close to Crowd Surf, is more mundane. Despite being employed by Spears for nearly a decade and a half, Petrey has only worked with Spears in person a few times. The majority of their interactions were through phone calls and text messages, usually in group chats where Spears would ask Petrey and her staff for advice on what to post or help with editing photos and videos. During the conservatorship, Petrey had a distant working relationship with Lou Taylor. She cut off contact with Spears’s father, Jamie, after her court testimony in June 2021 — though she wasn’t speaking to him or the other conservators much at all by that point.

Petrey is not the sole person who works directly with Spears on her social media; there’s a team of people at Crowd Surf who help out with whatever she needs. Posting anything without the star’s consent? They could get sued for that. “Britney is very much the director and the producer and in charge of it,” says the source close to Crowd Surf. Some conspiracy theorists wonder why Spears won’t simply “go live” and “prove” she’s alive and well. “Let’s say she did go on live and said, ‘Everything’s okay!’” the person continues. “There’s going to be another theory about why she was forced to do that. It never ends.” (Spears has also historically been uncomfortable with the idea of livestreaming; in November, when Asghari went live on Instagram and asked Spears if he could show her face on the stream, she replied offscreen, “I don’t want to talk to them right now.”) Of the old photos Spears posts to her Instagram, one friend of the pop star, who has been in her life before, during, and after the conservatorship, says, “How often do people post photos where they think they look good that were taken six months before? It’s not as deep as people think it is.”

Lipscomb, the makeup artist, and others say that most of the inconsistencies Free Britney 2.0 points to can be explained by other means; he suspects much of the fan theorizing comes from the public’s ignorance of the peculiarities of LA celebrity culture — there was a rumor, for instance, that Spears was being sex-trafficked because she would only dine in hotels; Lipscomb notes that hotels are often the most discreet places for celebrities to eat because many have private entrances. Other theories, he says, reveal ignorance of Spears the person. “I’ve talked to so many people who’ve worked with Britney and I’ve talked to people who’ve dated her,” he says. “People question, ‘Why doesn’t she have her hair done?’ I knew her hairstylist — she hates having her hair done. They’re still analyzing every movement and trying to zoom in to see if that’s a bruise on her ankle. It’s just like, ‘Oh my God, you guys, at some point you do have to get a life.’”

The original Free Britney movement may have been proved right, but it has always attracted extremist thinkers. Even QAnon believers used Spears’s case to exploit their own aims, seeing a beautiful woman controlled and abused by “Hollywood elites” as evidence that she is a victim of a larger cabal of Satanic cultists. Jasmin Vargas, a Free Britney supporter since 2016, has written about how conspiracy theories derailed the movement, which was largely made up of fans trying to do the work of journalists — a necessary tactic when journalists wouldn’t take them seriously, she writes. But that still didn’t make them journalists.

Vargas cites a 2019 episode of Britney’s Gram — the podcast run by Tess Barker and Barbara Gray that was crucial to eventually revealing the truth of the conservatorship — that discusses one of Spears’s Instagram captions, in which she celebrated losing five pounds. “If you know Britney at all, if you’re a fan even casually, you’d know that she would never write that,” Barker says. “No. Never,” Gray responds. They later backtracked their comments when Spears continued to discuss her weight in future posts. Perhaps Spears would talk about her weight now? The fandom’s fixation on knowing the “real” Britney is rooted in an idea of who she used to be, and to accept who she is now would mean giving that up.

“Her whole career, there was an image of her that was created, and if she didn’t comply with it, there were consequences,” says Miller, of BreatheHeavy. “Now that she’s finally allowed to have control over how she’s portrayed, that makes people uncomfortable. And that’s good. It should be a little uncomfortable, because what happened is not right.”

The tricky part is that it’s impossible to stop speculating once you’ve decided nothing you see and hear is true. “We’re never going to be fully satisfied because the answers we got were plainly inaccurate and covering up something that was pretty gross,” Vargas tells me. “As much as I do want to hold people accountable — you shouldn’t call 911 on a person that you don’t actually know — I have sympathy for the fact that dedicated Britney fans have lived the last 15 years with some amount of doubt as to what is going on in Britney’s life. That’s hard to turn off once the conservatorship is officially done.”

None of the Free Britney 2.0 fans I spoke to condone the call to police — not even those who made the call. One of the people on the stream released an apology video. “My intentions were pure, but my actions were wrong,” she said. “I had an instant trauma response, and I thought that this was the way to help.” The other went private on all his social media accounts after a barrage of harassment, including tweets at his employer that attempted to get him fired. White, Datta, and the rest of Free Britney 2.0 believe they cannot simply do nothing, however. “You see fans fighting on social, saying, ‘Leave her alone!’” Serna says. “We’re literally just concerned for her well-being. The duty right now of a fan is to be speaking out on a human who appears to be possibly suffering.”

Multiple people close to the pop star say she is adamant they not talk to the press, which makes it difficult for them to address the rumors head on. (Spears did not respond to a request for comment.) “The fans really need to let her go through what she needs to go through,” says the friend of Spears. “Everybody wants her to get back on her feet and be the best version of herself, but that stuff doesn’t happen overnight. That’s not the way mental health works.” They added that the conspiracy theories in her Instagram comments and on Twitter and TikTok are actively harming Spears’s well-being, mimicking the constant surveillance of the conservatorship and the tabloids. “Every time conspiracy theories get a lot of attention, they destabilize a situation where she’s trying to gain trust and then it sets everybody back.”

Spears has been working consistently since the end of the conservatorship. This summer in particular has been busy, and every new project has been met with Free Britney 2.0’s characteristic suspicion. In a long-awaited announcement, Spears said she would release her memoir, The Woman in Me, in October, promising to reveal “for the first time her incredible journey — and the strength at the core of one of the greatest performers in pop music history,” according to the press release.

In response, Datta made a video about how off the announcement seemed: Spears had posted, then deleted a full-length video of herself sharing the news, then reposted the same announcement shot in selfie mode. Datta captioned her video “PROOF Britney Spears is STILL BEING CONTROLLED.”

White doesn’t buy the book at all. He points to the fact that people he believes are part of “Team Con” are promoting it, by which he means Hudson, Petrey, Spears’s publicist Jeff Raymond, and Kim Kardashian (who works with Lou Taylor and therefore has a connection to Team Con). This is all evidence, he believes, that the memoir will tell a “heavily edited and redacted” version of the true story — yet another way for the people around her to profit off her. It’s right there on the cover, he adds, which features a black-and-white photo of a young Spears taken in 2001. “My first thought was, ‘They’re using a 20-year-old picture?’” White says. “It doesn’t seem like she’s very invested.” As for Spears’s new collaboration with will.i.am? White believes it was done with AI. The song, appropriately, is called “Mind Your Business.”