Celebrity is a somewhat novel concept that has emerged after the focus of public lives moved away from the government. It may be partially attributed to television, which enabled people to see famous people up close and changed the course of politics. However, even then, the interactions of media stars with the public were limited to the scope of television shows that were subject to editing and attempted to earn money by attracting audiences above all other goals. However, nowadays, celebrities can interact with people in a freeform manner. They have increasingly started using their platforms to promote political topics, notably on Twitter via hashtags such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. However, this politicization of celebrity social media discourse is harmful due to its lack of depth and the misrepresentation of the positions presented.
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Celebrities have the power to affect social trends, primarily through the use of social media. Duvall and Heckemeyer (2018) highlight how their power translates into perceived authority, which they have used to promote the #BlackLivesMatter movement and help it achieve its current prominence. Without receiving the assistance of celebrities, the movement may have become substantially less prominent, and the issues that it highlights may have been forgotten. Berkman (2020) provides the example of Wole Soyinka, who exposed Europe’s role in South African apartheid. Celebrity power can promote movements and create change in political and social climates. However, the existence of this influence raises the question of responsibility and whether celebrities use their platforms to promote political causes that they can advocate for meaningfully.
Celebrity status is not indicative of a person’s political knowledge or ability, and neither does it imply access to information not available to the public. As a result, when a celebrity endorses a particular hashtag or movement without a more detailed explanation, their opinion holds no more credibility than that of any other person. However, their platform, which often consists of large numbers of followers that subscribe to the celebrity because of their work rather than their politics, gives them disproportionate influence. Russel (2017) highlights this danger of hashtag activism as a practice likely to “casually involve uninformed publics in complex and charged issues” and reinforce their positions through the feeling of accomplishment while promoting faulty solutions (p. 85). By investing several minutes and little effort into a tweet, a celebrity can substantially influence the political activity on the platform.
With that said, sometimes celebrities will speak out against less controversial matters or ones they understand well. According to Douglas and McDonnell (2019), the #MeToo movement started gaining prominence when celebrities such as Rose McGowan and Angelina Jolie spoke out against Harvey Weinstein and accused him of sexual misconduct. The producer’s situation can be compared to the case of Bill Cosby, where allegations were ignored until celebrities came forward, and contrasted with the allegations against Woody Allen, where they are still dismissed because of the accuser’s non-celebrity status (Hannem & Schneider, 2019). In each of the confirmed cases, the involvement of celebrities was necessary before justice could be served despite the massive scale of the misconduct. However, these cases also raise the question of why the perpetrators, who were celebrities themselves, were able to conceal their crimes for a long time despite knowing that they were widespread in the sphere.
As people with money and power, celebrities are prone to corruption, with some, such as the sexual abusers discussed above, engaging in criminal acts with the expectations that the victims will stay quiet and that they will not be caught. They are often not alone in these pursuits but rather form connections with others, as exemplified by Jeffrey Epstein’s broad network of business, political, and celebrity connections that may have been involved in his trafficking and sexual offenses (Rogers, 2020). These networks of connections intimidate victims, including other celebrities, who are afraid to speak out because of the potential damage to their careers and the difficulty of proving their cases and only do so after someone else starts the movement. Combined with their own potential misconduct, this complicity raises the question of celebrity authenticity when they speak out.
The relationships and career dangers described above apply to political matters, as well. Many celebrities tend to follow social media trends to secure positive reactions, which may be indicative of their views reflecting the widespread consensus. However, Farrel (2019) highlights how celebrities such as Russel Brand speak out against neoliberal policies while affirming and reinforcing them through their work. Many similar contradictions can be found in celebrity activism, with people expressing views publicly that conflict with what they do privately. This form of activism is dishonest and damages both the movement and the person in question. The former is compromised by prominent supporters who undermine its credibility through their hypocrisy in ignoring inconvenient positions while demanding their enforcement on others, and the latter loses the respect of both sides of the debate.
With that said, the lack of authenticity may also be associated with another, more dangerous concept. Some celebrities may be coerced into supporting prevalent causes by the public as well as their peers. Watkins (2017) describes the phenomenon using the example of feminism: “Other people, however, are pressured and bullied into feminism. […] That is to say, they are mercilessly attacked and trashed for attempting to distance themselves from feminism” (p. 186). To avoid attacks, or as a response to attacks, celebrities will promote causes that they do not support. Moreover, due to their authority and position as users with some of the highest follower counts, these people sway opinions and present a potentially skewed picture of the social trends. The tactic may be used by political activists to misrepresent their causes as more prominent than they are in reality.
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Celebrity activism is vital for promoting matters in the public consciousness, as it has the power to connect people to topics they may not be familiar with, and in which they can be initially uninterested. However, social media enables and often forces them to support causes that they do not understand or support. Moreover, even the celebrities who appear to be committed to causes publicly can turn out to not lead by example, hurting the movement and themselves once the contradiction is uncovered. As such, the dangers of this low-commitment style of activism outweigh any positive effects that it may have. People must remember the inauthenticity of celebrities, their limitations, and the constraints placed on them by the system in which they exist. If a celebrity intends to participate in activism, they should establish their separate credibility and identity as activists first.
Berkman, K. (2020). Literary celebrity and political activism: Wole Soyinka’s Nobel Prize lecture and the anti-apartheid struggle. Critical Arts. Advance online publication. Web.
Douglas, S. J., & McDonnell, A. (2019). Celebrity: A history of fame. NYU Press.
Duvall, S. S., & Heckemeyer, N. (2018). # BlackLivesMatter: Black celebrity hashtag activism and the discursive formation of a social movement. Celebrity Studies, 9(3), 391-408. Web.
Farrel, N. (ed.). (2019). The political economy of celebrity activism. Taylor & Francis.
Hannem, S., & Schneider, C. J. (2019). Stigma and the “Weinstein effect”: A comparative analysis of sexual misconduct allegations against Donald J. Trump and Harvey Weinstein in news media. In S. S. Chen, Z. J. Chen, & N. Allaire (Eds.), Building sexual misconduct cases against powerful men (pp. 11-36). Lexington Books.
Rogers, T. N. (2020). Les Wexner just stepped down as the CEO of L Brands amid fury over his relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Here are all the famous people Epstein was connected to. Business Insider. Web.
Russell, A. (2017). Journalism as activism: Recoding media power. Wiley.
Watkins, V. (2017). (Black) feminism online: The political uses of social media and the implications for Africana studies. In J. L. Conyers Jr. (Ed.), Africana race and communication: A social study of film, communication, and social media (pp. 169-196). Lexington Books.