With social media changing the face of the fourth estate, more and more people are able to voice their views, and attempt to instigate change in the wider world. With instantly visible, potentially viral global discourse crossing borders of nationality, class, and gender, are the views of celebrities valued by the public?
In a now popular tendency to use the spotlight as a platform for protest, Meryl Streep’s recent speech at the Golden Globes ceremony on 8th January called attention to Donald Trump’s conduct as a leader, in particular to his mocking of disabled New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski in 2015. “Disrespect invites disrespect,” she stated; “Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.” While many celebrated Streep’s words, others, including Trump, dismissed her as a rich, “overrated” celebrity, who should not interfere with politics.
While most of these supporters undoubtedly already disapproved of Trump mocking Kovaleski, Streep’s objective was presumably to raise awareness of the implications of his actions. Researchers have disputed that famous personalities have any real sway over public opinion, but if celebrities create and popularise fitness regimes, fad diets, and fashion trends, why should they not be capable of influencing their followers’ political views? Research conducted by Valerie O’Regan, Ph. D. suggests that, while young people believe that others are more influenced by celebrities’ views than by those of politicians, young adults are “more likely to listen to individuals other than celebrities for their own political information.”
Celebrities do “have an effect on the way people think,” O’Regan writes: “Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Barack Obama for president in 2008 affected the choices that many people made when they voted that year. Ranking number 14 on Forbes Magazine’s The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women list defines Winfrey as a force to be reckoned with, and her support as something political candidates desire.”
Celebrity endorsement is not always so effective. During the 2016 electoral campaign in the US, many personalities spoke out in an effort to influence the public. Savetheday.vote launched a video featuring Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson encouraging the public to vote in order to impede Trump’s rise to power. Despite this, many of his supporters have not been discouraged.
While some celebrities use fame as capital employed to effect tangible change (for instance, in humanitarian work), others are increasingly utilising social media to promote their own objectives. A taxonomy of power would be necessary to discern between various forms of influence celebrities have in public matters. If public opinion is often malleable and surprisingly easy to shift, more stringent issues of policy change and law making might fall outside of the impact of the outspoken rich and famous. Whether celebrities have influence or not, much can be taken from the recent Twitter statement by The Revenant actor, Will Poulter: as a public figure, “there is an undeniable opportunity that you can either embrace, reject or abuse when it comes to using your ability to communicate with a mass of people. I see it as a responsibility that extends to who and what you associate yourself with, where you are equally free to embrace, reject or abuse. But now, more than ever, I am only going to embrace people and subjects that are focused on inclusion and equality.”
Words: Alice Tuffery
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu