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Joe Jonas — and the celebrity PR machine — isn’t fooling us anymore

Nobody trusts tabloid spin anymore, for better and for worse.

Sophie Turner and Joe Jonas in 2019.
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

In the year of the celebrity breakup — Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Reese Witherspoon, and Chelsea Handler have all announced splits in the past few months — the news that Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner are divorcing could have just been another instance to add to an already long list of famous blonde women ending long-term partnerships. Instead, it’s turned into something else: a publicity battle playing out in the tabloids, one that uses all the traditional elements of PR warfare, except the difference is that this time, the public isn’t buying it.

Word of an impending split spread on September 3 when TMZ reported that Jonas and Turner were “headed for divorce,” citing anonymous sources that said Jonas had consulted with two divorce attorneys. The report said Jonas was caring for the couple’s two children “pretty much all of the time” as his family band, the Jonas Brothers, continues to tour the US. Two days later, Jonas filed; a “source with direct knowledge” told TMZ of the reasoning that “She likes to party, he likes to stay at home.” Both Page Six and the Daily Mail followed up the news by publishing articles reiterating the claims alongside photos of Turner drinking and dancing; when Turner went to a wrap party for a show she was filming in the UK, the Daily Mail published the headline that she’d “partied ‘without a care in the world’ just days before Joe Jonas divorce.” Other sources leaked to the tabloids that Jonas had either seen or heard something captured by a Ring camera that Turner had done which led to the divorce filing, implying infidelity or improper parenting.

That TMZ, Page Six, and the Daily Mail’s reporting are tinged with misogyny is nothing new. What is, though, is readers’ ability to decode the narratives they see play out in tabloids. Almost immediately, people online expressed anger at the way Jonas was seemingly trying to paint Turner as a bad mom, even though he hadn’t said anything on the record. Within days, Glamour, Vogue, and Rolling Stone had all written articles defending Turner, TikTokers were going viral for explaining and debunking the veiled accusations (in 2020, the pair made a video in which they both agreed Turner was “the homebody in the relationship”; Turner also echoed the sentiment in an interview with Conan O’Brien that she was an introvert and a homebody and that he was a “social butterfly” and that “I struggle to lock him down and just spend time with me”). The cast of The View called out Jonas’s “spin,” with Sunny Hostin saying, “What I don’t like about the spin lately is that he’s taking care of the kids — I’m sorry, is this an immaculate conception? They’re his freaking kids, too! So what, he’s taking care of the kids? Does he get a gold star?”

Obviously, it shouldn’t matter whether a parent is a homebody or a partier, and we don’t know anything about the pair’s actual relationship dynamic. But we do know how celebrity PR works now, and it’s in part thanks to TikTokers, podcasters, and amateur celebrity gossips on social media who are educating people on how the proverbial sausage gets made.


I mean #joejonas tries but he doesnt have the innate cool factor #sophieturner has

♬ original sound - FluentlyForward

Shannon McNamara has been running the TikTok account @fluentlyforward since 2020, where she discusses celebrity blind items as well as her own opinions and predictions on the news of the moment. Though her professional background is in marketing and sociology, she’s now a full-time celebrity sleuth. Her bread and butter: dissecting the PR machine, where “a source close to the family” or “a source close to X” frequently means X themselves or someone X has designated to speak on their behalf. (Most of the sources in the TMZ articles about Jonas and Turner’s divorce were cited as such.) She’s taught her followers about “Friday news dumps,” or the practice of announcing sensitive news on Friday afternoons and evenings, when most journalists are winding down work, in order to avoid media scrutiny, and how to spot PR speak in celebrity journalism. On her Instagram, she has a highlight story documenting the times news reports include the phrase “very much in love,” indicating that a celebrity’s publicist has directly spoken to the publication to confirm that the celebrity and their partner are still going strong. “You Google it, and the only time it ever comes up is [in the context of] celebrity couples. People don’t say that!” she says.

Of Turner and Jonas, she believes audiences rallied around Turner because it seemed clear that Jonas’s camp was attempting to portray her as a bad mother, but also because the claims didn’t appear to hold up. “We live in a time where there’s direct proof because everything lives online. So when he says, ‘She wants to go out and party all the time,’ we’ve already seen the TikTok they made two years ago where they say she’s an introvert and a homebody.” People were also furious that, in the days following their divorce announcement, Jonas was photographed having lunch with their two daughters on what’s now widely known as a “pap walk” or a “plandid,” a.k.a. a staged paparazzi moment, particularly because Turner has said in the press that she is extremely protective of them: “My daughter never asked for any of this. I know what it can do to your mental health to be in this industry and to be photographed every day and have the comments,” she told Elle UK in 2022.

Molly McPherson, who since the 1990s has worked in crisis communication for the cruise industry and organizations like FEMA during Hurricane Katrina, is another popular TikToker educating people on how to decode PR speak. Over her decades-long career, she’s watched audiences grow far more skeptical — and vocal about that skepticism — of what they hear from the news media and from celebrities. “In previous decades, celebrities, their publicists, and their lawyers were used to having privacy and control when they managed traditional media. Social media has turned that model upside down. The public has the power to shape and control the narrative, and it’s very difficult to control it,” she explains. These days, they manage their reputations by becoming their own paparazzi and appearing relatable on social media. But when celebrities are in crisis, the new rules become much more difficult to navigate.

Where Joe Jonas and his camp went wrong, she says, was in using an outdated celebrity PR playbook that doesn’t cut it with audiences anymore. “They’re trying to manage the press in order to shape public opinion, and they’re learning that you cannot shape public opinion through manipulation anymore,” she says. “It was a clumsy attempt at making Joe Jonas appear like the victim in the public spiraling of this divorce. No one was buying it.”

These days, McPherson says, the only tactic that truly “works” is the truth, or at least a carefully messaged version of it. “Without it, the public will rise up against anyone who tries to manipulate them or lie to them,” she says. “They’re more skeptical, they’re more scrutinizing, and they’re savvier. They’re often smarter than the publicity team or fixers behind these public scandals.”

As much as audiences’ savvy has helped them see through the lies of powerful interests, McNamara regularly sees that skepticism extend far beyond critical thinking. In the comment sections in her TikToks and elsewhere online, she sees people who believe that every single celebrity relationship is a showmance, or that nothing they read or hear is real at all. When Timothée Chalamet and Kylie Jenner were seen making out at Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour, for instance, many of her commenters claimed that it was all for publicity. “I’m like, ‘What would the PR be for? They’re not in a movie together. They don’t even have the same vibe.” If you can’t trust that Timothée Chalamet and Kylie Jenner are simply two hot famous people who enjoy kissing each other, what can you believe? “In this post-Covid world where people are like, ‘fake news, you can’t trust anything,’ it’s transferred over to pop culture, and now you can’t trust the tabloids. So we’re all just out here straight-up not trusting.”

It’s easy to make the argument that skepticism of celebrities’ motivations is a positive shift after a decade and a half of (often quite toxic) stan dynamics, where groups of fans rally around a celebrity-as-demigod, someone who can do no wrong, and harasses anyone who dares to criticize their fave. After Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis wrote letters defending the character of Danny Masterson, their costar on That ‘70s Show who was convicted of rape and sentenced to 30 years in prison, people were reminded that celebrities are, in fact, just like us, in the sense that they’ll sometimes do unconscionable things to protect their friends, and by reifying them we implicitly excuse those unconscionable things. But when audiences’ mistrust applies to literally everything — as though no news source, celebrity, publicist, or fan can be trusted — it makes us vulnerable to harmful rumors that become so unwieldy they’re impossible to debunk. Consider the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial, where baseless conspiracy theories about Heard shaped public opinion and racked up millions of views on social media, furthering backlash against victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Ironically, McNamara says, it’s young people who seem to have the most extreme theories. “Any time someone says something about a clone, I’m like, ‘Go for a walk in the park.’” (A contingent of Britney Spears’s fandom, for instance, believes she’s been replaced with a body double or AI.) According to a YouGov survey of 1,516 Americans published this June, younger people were more susceptible to online misinformation, as well as people who got their news from social media. Celebrity conspiracy theories are nothing new, obviously, but there’s now a lot more to gain from spreading them: namely, clout, on platforms where the most extreme ideas get the most views. If, say, you’ve got the wildest “proof” of Gaylor, or the theory that Taylor Swift is gay, you’re almost guaranteed to go viral, in the same way that if you’re the one to fully explain and contextualize the Jonas-Turner divorce, you can get a lot of attention very quickly. Former Real Housewife of New York Bethenny Frankel, for instance, whose career had a bit of a second act as a behind-the-scenes-of-the-entertainment-industry expert, posted an explainer of what she believed happened with Jonas’s PR. “You can’t mess around with the media,” she says, “The media is the ocean ... you let the ocean do what it’s going to do otherwise you will get caught in a riptide.”

On September 9, Jonas appeared to distance himself from what sources had told the tabloids. At a concert stop in LA, before singing the song “Hesitate,” which is about his relationship with Turner, he told the audience not to believe what they may have read. “It’s been a crazy week,” he said, then continued, “I just want to say, look, if you don’t hear it from these lips, don’t believe it, okay?” He then cried onstage while singing the song. It’s unclear whether the emotion stemmed from the divorce or because of all the jokes online about Sophie Turner putting all the cups in the top cabinet.

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