The demand that people with a platform “speak out” on every issue feels misdirected.
A couple of days ago, I saw a TikTok that began as a callout toward creators who were too busy posting goofy videos to speak out on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Then, abruptly, the video stopped, cutting to another user.
“You guys want @Spencewuah?” the second user asked, referring to an example of the type of popular creator the original video was calling out. “What is he gonna say of any fucking substance about the most pressing current event going on right now? If people want to educate themselves they should go to real fucking sources anyway,” she said. “Do you guys even care about the issue or do you care about influencers caring about the issue?”
It reminded me of a discussion that I’d been seeing a lot on TikTok about the way social media has given us the expectation that every video, every tweet, every take needs to be a 100 percent irreproachable statement and encompass the lived experiences of everyone who might read it. “The way this app makes us act like teenagers need to have PhD-level expertise on every single topic is crazy,” was the gist of one TikTok I saw months ago and haven’t been able to stop thinking about.
The same is true, evidently, for influencers. Beyond constant calls in comments sections from their followers to speak up on political issues, even other celebrities have joined the chorus. Earlier this month, the rapper Noname called out famous people who’d stayed silent on the latest phase of the conflict.
It’s a natural inclination to demand action from the most privileged. The problem is that this desire for others to say something — anything! — feels misdirected. One anonymous beauty influencer told the UK fashion magazine Grazia that she’d received DMs from followers telling her they were “disappointed” that she hadn’t spoken up to advocate for Palestinians. She’d read the news but said that to share exactly what she was reading might be considered patronizing to her audience — or worse, end up spreading misinformation. As a woman of color, she also remembered her frustration last summer when non-Black creators kept chiming in about Black Lives Matter. “I didn’t want to be one of those people in this instance,” she said.
After enough pressure, however, she shared a link to a news article. That still didn’t satisfy her followers. They told her that “the media wasn’t to be trusted” and sent her other resources instead.
Would there have been a “right way” for a celebrity or influencer who is otherwise unconnected to the Israel-Palestine crisis to “speak out”? I’m not entirely sure. As Habiba Katsha writes in the Independent, “Forcing a group of people who haven’t expressed an interest in social issues to post political content can encourage performative allyship. If influencers are only posting political content because they’ve been told to, it means they’re posting out of obligation rather than desire, which is performative.” She contrasts this to, say, Bella and Gigi Hadid, who as half-Palestinian women have been able to draw on their personal experiences to be vocal about current events. (After they attended a pro-Palestine rally in New York, the Israeli government condemned their actions as anti-Semitic.) Israeli actress Gal Gadot also drew backlash for her tweets in support of her home country.
Many celebrities who have made statements have faced immediate backlash. For weeks, Mark Ruffalo had made clear that his pro-Palestine remarks had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, but after extended pressure, he walked back his original criticisms of Israel. Rihanna, meanwhile, was accused of “All Lives Mattering” the issue when she wrote on Instagram that her “heart was breaking with the violence I’m seeing displayed between Israel and Palestine.”
The number of people who believe celebrities should “stay out of politics” and the number of those who believe that they should speak up on every platform available is about even, at 29 percent and 28 percent, respectively, according to a 2018 poll from Morning Consult and the Hollywood Reporter. Gen Z and millennials are more likely to say that a celebrity speaking out would influence how they vote in an election.
Yet the value of these statements should be considered as much as whether the statements should exist at all. For the most part, influencers exist because we like looking at them, their lives, their homes, and their clothes, and not necessarily their ability to articulate nuanced debates. Just as we should be suspicious of any big business that weighs in on political issues, so too should we be of celebrities, because ultimately both are beholden to their own economic success.
Rather than share empty infographics on Instagram or make grandiose statements with little action to back them up, a better way the wealthy could use their platforms is by sharing what, exactly, they’re doing in support of their causes. Reminders from influencers that they engage in activism, that they give a certain percentage of their income to charitable causes, that they volunteer and support their local mutual aid groups, can normalize these activities to the point where more people feel as though we should be regularly incorporating them into our lives.
But I don’t know that the demand for influencers to speak out on complex political issues is entirely about the issues themselves. It feels more like a test: Am I, as a fan, justified in having this parasocial relationship with you? Who are you, anyway? Should I be uncomfortable with how much attention we’re all giving you?
I can’t help but feel the inevitable anger is similar to what happens when a certain type of always-mad-online person reads a news article about a celebrity wedding or a new fashion trend or, I don’t know, TikTok influencers. They’ll unleash their frustrations over the fact that too much media attention is spent on frivolous-seeming topics and lash out at the writer (“Why don’t you cover something actually important for once?” is a reply every culture reporter repeatedly gets on Twitter). It’s the same kind of misdirection — there are clearly thousands of other reporters covering the topics that said reader has deemed “actually important,” reporters who are far more knowledgeable and well-sourced on such things. Do you really want to read a heady explainer on a new health care bill written by me? Of course you don’t!
Celebrities, in other words, should not be the moral compasses of the masses. We have other people who are supposed to be doing that — for example, political and spiritual leaders who are beholden to us as citizens rather than as consumers. To the extent that those people aren’t doing their jobs is a problem with a solution: Demand better from them, instead of unloading in a beauty influencer’s comment section.
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Author: Rebecca Jennings