AnnaSophia Nicely '23
If we were alive a hundred years ago, we probably couldn’t have guessed that in the coming centuries, almost the entirety of human morality could be found in a click and swipe on a screen. Celebrities and their star power have been a prevailing aspect of culture for decades, but the scope of this power has never been as influential as it is now. In this digital age, forming a political opinion and sharing it is as easy as opening a computer. Almost everyone has access to this ever-expanding pool of political information, regardless of affiliation or level of truth. Whether you see this as a perk of modern technology or downfall, the truth remains; modern media provides just as much political socialization as family and friends. And who, you might ask, controls the majority of this media influx? That’s right, the stars.
Now that we know that the scope of this influence isn’t debatable, let’s take a look at what is: Do these stars actually affect voter outcomes? Or, even more subjectively, where must the line be drawn for this direct influence, if at all? How do we decide who gets to speak up and who doesn’t?
First of all, this modern “star power” influence has had mixed results. For example, in the 2018 midterm elections Taylor Swift was incredibly public in her support of Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen. In the end, he lost. Similar situations have taken place with many other high-profile celebrities, including Rihanna and Travis Scott, as the candidates they publicly endorsed also lost their elections. In fact, after the 2004 presidential election, a study found that friends and family were more influential than celebrities on young voters. The report concluded that "Celebrities may have looked pretty, but they were not particularly influential on first-time voters.”
However, star influence has not always failed in the bigger picture, as it has existed since the birth of modern celebrity around the 1920s. In fact, President Kennedy was famously backed by an array of high-profile social justice leaders, while Warren Harding won after receiving public endorsements from a raft of film stars. More recently, research conducted by the University of Maryland credits Oprah with bringing Barack Obama more than a million votes in the 2008 Presidential Primary process. And even though Taylor Swift’s Senate candidate lost, research shows that her political activism has sparked interest in millions of young voters around the country. So now that it can be said that the influence of star power has at least somewhat parallel successful outcomes, what are its benefits and dangers?
Many reporters and professors who have studied the effects of celebrities in the political field break down the scope of their influence into two main factors: the celebrities’ political credibility and the level of “constructiveness” of their arguments. A common example used to differentiate these two sides is one involving Oprah Winfrey and Kanye West. Because of her political background, Oprah is “credible” in her political beliefs, meaning the public is more likely to trust her on these topics because she has a range of experiences with them. On the other hand, one expert on the topic, Professor Lucas of the University of Birmingham, told the BBC, "I would distinguish that type of celebrity influence from let's say, listening to [Robert] De Niro because he flips off the president. I think you've got to have more of a constructive approach… If Kanye had said something that was comprehensible and that was meaningful, then Kanye has got a contribution, but when Kanye does what he does, he becomes a figure of fun and everybody on the Republican side was quite happy for him to drop out of politics, whatever that meant." Professor Curtice of the University of Strathclyde states that the "[c]elebrities are fine so long as they are generating favorable publicity, but they can sometimes end up generating unfavorable publicity because they're not necessarily always politically nuanced."
When all the smoke of credibility and constructive arguments clears away, we are left with very few solid answers but the same simple truth we started with: celebrity influence is real. At the same time, it’s an individual’s responsibility to choose who to listen to and respond to. This has never been as important as it is now, as we near the November elections with record numbers of new voters registering. We must use the information the media presents to us with caution but also with an open mind, always considering who is credible, who is constructive, and even more importantly, who is spreading a message of hate and lies and who is spreading one of acceptance, love, and positive change. Above all, it is important that we think for ourselves and learn from our experiences. Only after listening to our own hearts can we turn to take influence from the hearts of others, no matter how dazzling their star power might be.
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