Activism Influencers: How Celebrities are Redefining Social Justice
By Shivani Ghate
You know the drill. When a celebrity posts an inflammatory tweet or controversial picture, the media’s reaction is swift and immediate. For the next few days, a slew of news stories will dominate your feed until you can’t help but know all the details of Chrissy Teigen's latest clapback or the newest update to the Kylie-Jordan drama.
The ubiquity of celebrity drama is nothing new. More recently, however, the influence of celebrities is extending past the realms of tabloids and Twitter and into political activism.
Take Kim Kardashian’s efforts on Twitter to free incarcerated low-level offenders, sparking a wave of online support. Her first major political statement was when she retweeted an article about Alice Johnson in October 2017, commenting on the “unfairness” of Johnson’s incarceration. She later reached out to her lawyers and publicized Johnson’s case on Twitter to her 60 million followers, which led to a meeting with President Trump in May 2018 about prison reform. He subsequently granted Alice Johnson clemency. This major victory cemented Kim’s determination to work in criminal justice reform, helping with the efforts to free Cyntoia Brown and Chris Young. Despite backlash from people telling her to “stay in her lane”, Kim Kardashian has most recently declared her intent to pursue law specifically for criminal justice.
And on the other side of the global pop-stardom coin is Taylor Swift, whose Instagram endorsement of two Democratic candidates during the 2018 midterm elections, in which the Grammy-winning singer voiced her support for the LGBTQ community, womens, and civil rights as well as encouraging her supporters to vote. Swift stunned fans by breaking her years-long silence on political issues, citing the “disgusting rhetoric” of the past two years as the catalyst for her newfound outspokenness. Her 112 million followers certainly took note - Vote.org reported that in the 48 hours following her post, 169,000 people registered to vote, of which half were between the ages of 18-29. To put that in context, in the previous month, 190,178 registered to vote in total. While she garnered widespread praise, she also received fierce backlash from her rightwing fans and President Trump himself. However, Swift has no plans of backing down - in a recent Elle magazine interview, she says she is “finding her voice in politics” and that she’s “going to do more to help” in the 2020 election.
It has been well documented that Gen Z activism is predominantly on social media. More interestingly, however, is the rise of “activism influencers”: celebrities who use their growing platforms to speak on issues ranging from police brutality to climate change, actively swaying the public opinion. Some people, like Shaun King and Deray McKesson, have made online activism their full-time career. King is a civil rights activist who uses his audience of 1.1 million followers on Twitter and Instagram to promote #blacklivesmatter. He uses his platforms largely to retweet articles about political news and to raise awareness and funds for victims of police brutality. Deray McKesson is an activist, author, and podcast host who began his journey into activism after marching in the Ferguson protests. He is most active on social media, where he raises awareness on civil rights issues to his audience of 1.04 million on Twitter and 125k on Instagram.
Activism influencers are redefining the landscape of modern day activism. While many donate, march, and participate in other forms of direct action, they fail to instill such a response in their followers. With social media becoming increasingly saturated with activism-related posts, it is easy to be convinced that liking or retweeting makes you an activist. Social media has paved the way for slacktivism, the act of supporting a cause through low effort means. The noncommittal nature of social media has increased public engagement with social justice issues, but has also made activism more passive.
While it’s a net positive that celebrities are using their growing platforms to speak out on important issues, the problem lies in the disproportionate value we place on their well-intentioned but ultimately inexpert opinions. Rather than policymakers or people who have devoted their lives working towards social justice, celebrities are now shaping national political discourse.
Do we want to breed a culture of activism where Kim Kardashian’s tweets determine whether the president acts on prison reform? Where Taylor Swift’s Instagram picture is the reason that people register to vote? Neither prison reform nor increasing voting registration are new issues, but action was only taken after celebrities encouraged it.
So next time you like Zendaya’s Instagram post on representation in Hollywood or retweet Lil Dicky’s “Earth” music video, take the time to read more on the matter. A celebrity’s call to awareness should only begin your education on the subject, not be the extent of it.