The sanctimony of the celebrity Facebook boycott

17 September 2020

9:18 PM

17 September 2020

9:18 PM

Kim Kardashian West is the latest in a long line of celebrities, including Katy Perry, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, to freeze their social media accounts in order to protest against the spread of ‘hate, propaganda and misinformation’. But while the #StopHateForProfit campaign has no shortage of famous people signing up, it won’t be long before the same celebrities return to social media; the latest campaign lasts for just 24 hours. So is this really about stopping hate or is a bid to generate some easy publicity? It’s hard not to be sceptical.

That’s not to say, of course, that the campaign isn’t a worthy cause. Created in June, its aim is to put pressure on Facebook and Instagram to do more to stop the spread of hate speech and fake news. The organisation describes itself as a ‘diverse and growing coalition’ that wants to ‘raise awareness of Facebook’s harmful impact on our society,’ and demands that ‘Facebook enact critical changes’ before the November election. The freeze is part of a wider ‘week of action’ which started on Monday. Ironically, almost all of the celebrities who have broadcasted their support since then have done so through Facebook and Instagram.

Kerry Washington posted on her Instagram story that she was ‘calling’ on ‘users to protest the amplifications of hate and the undermining of democracy on these platforms’, while Sacha Baron Cohen posted a picture of a heavily sun-creamed Mark Zuckerberg with the caption, ‘The only thing more terrifying than Zuckerberg surfing in whiteface… is the white supremacy and lies Facebook spreads every day.’ Ali G isn’t as funny as he used to be.

Facebook’s policies and enforcements on hate speech, incitement to violence and misinformation may indeed be ‘astonishingly weak’, as StopHateForProfit says, but so is this so-called campaign.

The problem is that this celebrity crusade is self-righteous, sanctimonious, and laughably short-lived. Not posting on social media for a day is hardly a sacrifice, nor is it a particularly successful strategy. Facebook earned $70.7 billion (£55 billion) last year. Mark Zuckerberg is hardly going to suffer because Kim Kardashian West doesn’t post for a day, even if she does have 188 million Instagram followers.

Perhaps if this famous fighting-squad boycotted the sites for a month, or even a week, they might put a dent in the social media fortress. 24 hours isn’t even going to scratch the surface. Like so much social media activism, it gives a fleeting, false sense of purpose, an excuse for celebrities to say they are ‘doing their bit.’ By tomorrow we will be scrolling back through their feeds as normal, and the whole thing will have been forgotten about.

The only awareness these celebrities are raising is that of their own brand, or in the case of Kim Kardashian West, her rebrand. Kardashian West has gone from assistant stylist to sex tape star to reality TV persona to fashion icon to make-up mogul to relatable mother and now to social activist. Last year she announced that she is studying to become a criminal lawyer, and wants to use her profile to protest against the injustices of the prison-industrial complex. Trump even commuted the life sentence of a 63-year old woman after meeting her.

But while this post may be part of her strategy to promote her ever-evolving image, it is a risky one. The vast majority of Kardashian West’s Instagram posts get an average of 2 to 3 million likes; this latest one pales in comparison. Many users have criticised the boycott as well, saying that Kardashian West is ‘pushing a left-wing propaganda organisation,’ ‘taking the side of censorship,’ ‘against free speech’ and ‘dividing this country from her own “Hollywood hills bubble.”’

Of course, celebrities playing politics expect a degree of backlash. Yet there does seem to be a sense of fatigue around the endless causes that are endorsed on social media, and the way that celebrities sponsor them. In fact, this boycott seems to be simply the latest in a long list of celebrity faux-pas as they try to ‘connect’ with their audiences.

For who could forget Emma Thompson’s decision last year to fly from the US to attend a climate change protest in London? Or the tone-deaf celebrity cover of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ back in April, or Ellen DeGeneres comparing quarantining in her mansion to ‘like being in jail’? Or David Guetta’s remix of Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, which was apparently meant as a tribute to George Floyd?

Celebrities may feel they are adding their voices, but in reality they are just adding to the noise. If nothing else comes from this boycott, at least we can enjoy their brief period of silence.

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