You can see how easily it might have happened. There you are, an A-List celebrity, casually hanging out on a yacht in a bikini. It’s a beautiful sunny, blue-skied day (because the weather’s always better when you’re famous) and you’re leaning against the boat with a glass of wine in your hand.
Behind you, the azure sea stretches into the horizon. Your hair is ruffled by the breeze, in a picturesque, posing-for-a-catalogue kind of way. You are looking away from the camera, eyes cast down in contemplation. You’re deep in thought. Perhaps you’re thinking of launching a new lip-care line or how to dress your miniature dog.
And then, almost before you know it, you’ve uploaded the photo on Instagram for the delectation of your 328,000 followers and posted an impassioned appeal for the end of police brutality in the United States.
Wait…no…hang on a minute. That’s not how this story is meant to go is it? But when Mischa Barton posted a glamorous holiday picture on her Instagram account in July, that’s exactly what happened. Alongside the image, the 30-year-old actress used the opportunity to share her thoughts on the fatal police shooting of a black man called Alton Sterling and express her solidarity with the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement.
In a somewhat bizarre message, Barton said she was “truly heartbroken”, referred to the police as “pigs” and called for “a real President” to address issues of gun control.
Twitter went into meltdown. “Let us all take a moment to thank Mischa Barton for taking a moment out of her yachting day and drinking schedule to deliver that to the world,” wrote one user, reflecting the general tone of bewildered outrage.
It just [ital] looked so bad. The photo on its own would have been fine. The sentiments were undoubtedly worthy. But the weird, hashtag-strewn rant about gun violence? That didn’t sit well with the image of a an over-privileged celebrity sunning herself on a luxury yacht. Barton rapidly deleted the photo from her account. But by then the damage had already been done.
Barton isn’t the first and won’t be the last famous person to have fallen foul of social media, which is why Kirsten Stewart’s admission that she didn’t use any of these platforms came as such a refreshing change. With the proliferation of platforms such as Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, celebrities now make almost as many gaffes as they take selfies. In this hyper-digitised age of 24-hour news, celebrities face an increasing pressure to become politicised.
It’s a tricky course to navigate. While Barton was being publicly derided for expressing her opinion, Selena Gomez and Iggy Azalea both faced criticism for [ital] not commenting on a spate of US cop shootings in America. When the famous do speak out, they sometimes get their facts wrong - with offensive or even dangerous results.
In 2012, the director Spike Lee Tweeted out what he thought was the home address of a man who had shot dead unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida. The address turned out to be that of a wholly innocent couple in their 70s. The couple faced a barrage of threats and later sued Lee, who settled out of court.
After a massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando left 49 people dead, Madonna Instagrammed a picture of herself kissing Britney Spears on the lips from the MTV Video Music Awards in 2003 along with the words “Gay or straight, no hate”. Which would have been fine except that Madonna isn’t actually gay and so it smacked of a shallow marketing stunt.
In the world of celebrity, there is a narrow line between authentically believing something and simply plucking a fashionable hashtag out of thin air in order to appear relevant. Many get it wrong.
“The pressures have increased multifold,” says Mark Borkowski, a high-profile PR agency boss with over 30 years experience in the industry. “We expect our celebrities to be so much more than the sum parts of their blue Twitter tick.”
In the past, celebrities could get away with looking good in a nice dress on the red carpet. Their biggest worry was whether their teeth were white enough and what shade of cashmere sweater to wear when getting papped at an airport after a long-haul flight.
In fact, in the olden days of Hollywood, movie stars were barely expected to think for themselves: their every move was overseen by studio bosses wishing to protect their investment.
Interviews were heavily restricted and contracts often had morality clauses, in the hope that it would keep the actors from using drugs, committing adultery and other indiscretions that could ruin their image.
These days, the landscape has changed dramatically. The internet means celebrities are now able to have a direct relationship with their fanbase: access has been democratised.
What does that mean? It means we live in a world where Kim Kardashian West, a woman who rose to public attention with the leaking of a sex tape and who now heads up a multi-million dollar empire, has 47.6 million followers on Twitter and Hillary Clinton, potentially the next President of the United States and one of the most powerful women in the world, lags conspicuously behind with a mere 8.5 million.
And Kim isn’t even that popular on Twitter. I mean, sure, 47.6 million is considerably more than the entire population of Australia but it’s nothing compared to Katy Perry’s 96 million or Justin Bieber’s 86.9 million. Hillary and her pantsuit can’t hope to compete.
That’s before we even get to Instagram, where Selena Gomez has a cool 96.7 million followers compared to Barack Obama’s official account, which can only scrape together a paltry 8.6 million. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has 654,000 on Twitter, which makes him a bit like the uncool kid at school no-one wanted to play with because he smelled of old shoes and raw onion.
With celebrities wielding so much direct influence, we expect them to use their power for the good. So it’s no longer enough for Kylie Jenner to upload a picture of herself wearing a waist-cinching corset or drinking slimming herbal tea in an attempt at brand endorsement. We want our celebrities to have a social conscience too. We want to feel we know them, and that their interests tally with ours.
According to one study conducted by a student at the University of Southern California, 43 per cent of respondents indicated they had learned more about a particular cause because a celebrity they followed online had promoted it.
And if celebrities are the new politicians, they can make or break a real candidate’s chances. Barack Obama won endorsements from Leonardo di Caprio, George Clooney, Jennifer Aniston and Halle Berry before sweeping to victory at Presidential elections in 2008 and 2012.
Conversely, at the 2012 Republican convention, when Clint Eastwood was filmed berating an empty chair meant to represent Obama (one can only assume it seemed like a good idea at the time), it was roundly derided. The “Eastwooding” meme went viral with thousands posting pictures of empty chairs online. Obama even uploaded an image of himself sitting in a chair in the White House, accompanied by the line “This seat’s taken”.
Little wonder, then, that many harassed superstars seek professional help. They can’t be expected to look fabulous, be talented, choose the right Instagram filter to highlight their cheekbones AND know what to think about everything. I mean, they’re only human.
The cannier celebrity hires social media management companies such as We Are Social, a global agency that can take over the running of online platforms like Twitter and Instagram for an individual or brand. Agencies such as this one develop long-term strategies for a celebrity, matching them with the right kind of cause - one that that truly tallies with their interests. These agencies sometimes even style and photoshop those supposedly “casual” Instagram shots.
You think Taylor Swift’s nauseatingly fabulous Fourth of July party photos (feat. Blake Lively and Gigi Hadid) just happen off-the-cuff? Think again: she probably has a stylist and an “Instagram curator” just out of shot. Because, let’s be honest. No-one’s life can look [ital] that great all the time, not even Taylor’s.
Graham Jenks, the Group Creative Director at We Are Social, says that the desire for celebrities to speak out on current day issues is not a new one: “I don’t think there is necessarily more pressure on celebrities to speak out about topical issues,” he says. “My feeling is that, in the main, celebrities choose to use their status to support causes they believe in.
“Jane Fonda made a very clear anti-war stance during the Vietnam War in the 1970s and Live Aid in the 80s was very much a celebrity event. Today some high profile figures, like JK Rowling, are even setting up their own charities. The majority of celebrities certainly seem to be independently coming to their own positions on topical issues, and they may feel that they are making a positive difference by using their influence for a good cause.
“There are many positives about speaking out about issues. Public figures can help to raise awareness of major issues that matter to them and this can help to galvanise public support. We worked with YouTube last year on a campaign called #OursToLose. This campaign featured high profile YouTube influencers speaking out about climate change and highlighting everyday objects like tea or chocolate which are at risk from global warming. This was a great way to make a global issue feel personal.”
Of course, when a celebrity is informed and committed, their opinions carry more weight and potentially have more impact. But the problem comes when speaking out is simply viewed as a marketing opportunity. And because the nature of social media is immediate and transient and caters for our minimal attention spans, that means that sometimes there’s no space for a comprehensive understanding of all the issues.
“Social media can’t make the same kind of longform opinion as Bono did with LiveAid,” says Mark Borkowski. “The whole celebrity ‘cause’ market has been shattered because it’s no longer based on whether a celebrity has had time to read into what they’re promoting. So, it becomes wearing a slogan t-shirt on Instagram or posing naked with a fish rather than taking the time to be intelligent and considered.”
And if there’s one thing the public hates, Borkowski says, it’s inauthenticity. We can sniff it out from a hundred paces. There’s nothing worse than a celebrity saying something just for the sake of it, as if we’re all too dense to make out the sound of a bandwagon loudly being jumped on.
Perhaps we don’t really want our Justin Biebers and our Demi Lovatos (should the plural be Lovatoes, like potatoes?) pontificating from on high about what we should all be thinking. We want them to do what they’re good at: entertain us.
And it’s interesting to note that many of the megawatt stars, the ones who are presumably confident in their careers and their opinions, stay away from online platforms altogether. Daniel Radcliffe doesn’t have a Twitter account. Neither does Benedict Cumberbatch. Scarlett Johansson doesn’t post on Instagram. Neither does Jennifer Lawrence. Or Kristen Stewart.
Maybe we don’t want our celebrities to be politicians. We’ve got enough of them already. Mischa Barton should stick to looking lovely on a yacht. She can leave the opinions to the people whose job it is to know what they’re talking about.