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Celebrity opinion is virtue signalling

During the 2020 Golden Globe awards ceremony, host Rickey Gervais, the actor, and comedian had advice for the celebrities. He said: “So if you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg. So, if you win, come up, accept your little award. Thank your agent and your god, and f*** off!”

Gervais’ speech is a reminder of the celebrities’ penchant for self-indulgence. They insert themselves in various socio-political discourses of our time. Celebrities taking up “public interest” causes isn’t a new thing. Most do it for publicity; however, some have championed legitimate causes. Beatles famously took up the case of East Pakistani (Bangladeshi) refugees following the Bangladesh Liberation War. Beatles guitarist George Harrison organized concerts with sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar at the Madison Square Garden in New York. Bono, the lead singer of the band U2, is well-known for his fight against AIDS and extreme poverty in the African continent.

Celebrities have also often spoken on political and policy matters. Comedian Kathy Griffin had posted a picture of her holding a replica of then-President Donald Trump’s bloodied, decapitated head in her hand. Narendra Modi is communal, should be defeated, film director Mahesh Bhatt had said.

We recently saw several international celebrities take to the Twittersphere to express their opinion on India’s farm laws. They included Caribbean singer Rihanna, yesteryear’s Hollywood starlet Susan Sarandon, Lebanese-American porn star Mia Khalifa, left-wing Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg, and Meena Harris, the niece of the US Vice President Kamala Harris.

In most cases, celebrities are not domain experts. They lack the rigour domain experts usually have. Despite their lack of expertise in most cases, an individual’s celebrity status makes it possible for their views to be heard widely. With the advent of social media, their reach to the public has amplified manifold. The broadcast-like network characteristics of social media platforms like Twitter make celebrities disseminate information at lightning speed. The network of connected followers makes the information travel far and wide.

Notwithstanding their views and their reach, people care very little about what celebrities think about a particular issue, studies have shown. Celebrity views rarely factor in people’s own opinions or decision-making. Many think celebrity opinions have little effect at best and a negative impact at most. 65% of the respondents to the 2019 Hill-HarrisX survey said that Hollywood celebrities’ political endorsements have no bearing on their voting decisions. Only 11% said that celebrity endorsement would sway their voting preferences. 24% of respondents said that celebrity endorsement would have an adverse impact on their voting choices.

A similar YouGov survey in the UK found 63% of Britons believed that celebrity opinions made no difference in their decision-making. The 2018 Hill-HarrisX survey also had 60% of the respondents saying they opposed celebrities giving a political endorsement.

Whenever celebrities talk about politics and other issues, they provoke a range of reactions. The beneficiaries of the celebrity endorsements, political-ideological or otherwise, react very positively. The contrarians, however, often question celebrities’ bona fide on a given subject and their ideological bend.


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