Taylor Swift made headlines this October by becoming the most awarded female artist in the history of the American Music Awards. Along with her heightened prominence came Swift’s increased presence in politics. After refraining from discussing politics throughout her career, Swift broke her silence, joining hundreds of celebrities — Katy Perry, Jane Fonda, Leonardo DiCaprio, to name a few — in vocalizing their opinions about the current state of affairs. Celebrities have always used their popularity and fan base to influence the public in some way. However, the 2016 election and Trump’s subsequent policies seem to have galvanized stars from across the political spectrum to speak out and state their opinion — any opinion. While celebrities can increase the public’s awareness of certain issues with their mass appeal and broad reach, they often oversimplify complex issues, including intricate social, political, and economic dynamics, to present an easy, catch-all solution.
That is not to say that politicians do not do the same; very rarely are policies fully fleshed out in the media, and often lawmakers themselves do not know exactly what they are voting on. Still, this does not mean that celebrities, if they are going to choose to speak out on controversial topics, should not strive to be as informed on these topics as they possibly can. This has especially important implications considering the main demographic that these celebrities reach through their social media presence: young adults. These individuals tend to heavily rely on social media, often as the main news source (Pew estimates that 88% of the population aged 18-24 use some sort of social media.) Celebrities must take care that the messages they craft are informed and nuanced. Often, that is difficult to accomplish due to the platforms that celebrities utilize to reach their audience: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. Limited to 280 characters in a tweet, can stars like Chrissy Teigen and Rosie O’Donnell truly make a substantive argument?
Many celebrities become political activists to fight against some perceived injustice, but some do it for less noble purposes. Kanye West’s recent visit to the White House was a bewildering amalgamation of hydrogen planes, the 13th Amendment, and GIFs. Still, his erratic behavior, despite receiving heavy backlash, has not been completely damning. Last May, when he took to Twitter to rave about Trump, Twitter users were uncertain whether it was a sign of instability or “a masterful piece of performance.” Regardless, the spotlight was on him just as he released his new albums. President Trump used similar tactics, both on the campaign trail and in office, which ultimately served him well. As psychiatrist Allen Frances concludes, Trump has “been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy.” The very behavior that might get someone else diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder was what ultimately helped place Trump in the White House. The rise of social media as an effective means of communication and source of news has normalized the outlandish, transforming the way people and their opinions gain recognition in an increasingly crowded sphere. When influencers such as Trump or West are in the national spotlight, it is difficult to distinguish fact from fallacy, rationale from passion. If one cannot tell the difference, then the ideas that the 18.3 million people following Kanye West on Twitter take away from his messages are gravely flawed.
That is not to say that the outspokenness of celebrities always has a negative effect. Contrary to some opinions, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley criticized the Grammys for turning political: “Don’t ruin great music with trash.” It is promising to see so many stars utilizing their power and influence to protest policies that are detrimental to human rights. Leveraging her 112 million followers on Instagram, Taylor Swift endorsed Tennessee’s Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen and House candidate Jim Cooper, declaring, “I always have and always will cast my vote based on which candidate will protect and fight for the human rights I believe we all deserve in this country.” Swift continued on in a similar vein at the American Music Awards, urging her fans to vote in the midterm elections. After her statements, registrations surged by over 100,000, according to Vote.org. Nationwide, about 102,000 people ages 18-29 registered following her post. Of course, her message was not the only contributing factor; October 9th was the final date to register to vote in many states. Still, there is undeniably a correlation between celebrity activism and voter engagement. With many young people disillusioned with politics, celebrities can act as the stepping stone to increasing their awareness of political causes. And if celebrities can manage to just pique an individual’s interest in human rights abuses or environmental concerns, then that is a step in the right direction.
Photo: “Carta aberta a Marcos Facó”