Does celebrity activism matter?

In American society, awareness is action – but when attention is its own goal, nothing else gets accomplished.

Kourtney Kardashian Celebrates Her Birthday At Wet Republic
The Kardashians were responsible for getting the #ArmenianGenocide hashtag trending on April 24 [GALLO/GETTY]

It was April 24, 2012, and Kim Kardashian was on a mission. “Let’s get this trending,” she tweeted to over 14 million followers, “#ArmenianGenocide!!!!!” Hundreds immediately retweeted her call to commemorate the 1915 extermination of Armenians in Ottoman territories, among them her brother Rob (over 3 million followers) and sisters Khloe and Kourtney (over 7 million followers each). 

Within hours, the Kardashians had succeeded. “Armenian genocide” became one of the most searched for terms on Google and a top Twitter trend. “Great! Recognition of the #ArmenianGenocide now trending worldwide. Can’t stop the truth. Join the movement!” tweeted Rob, a former Dancing with the Stars contestant and aspiring sock designer. “U can’t know where your going until u recognize where you’ve been. Help us recognize the Armenian Genocide April 24, 1915. #ArmenianGenocide,” added Kim, in a moment of sagacity more reminiscent of her parody doppelganger KimKierkegaardashian than her own sexpot persona.

#ArmenianGenocide was one of many massacres to trend in 2012 thanks to celebrity association. In March, stars tweeted their newfound horror of the war criminal Joseph Kony. “It is time to make him known,” Justin Bieber proclaimed. “Im calling on ALL MY FANS, FRIENDS, and FAMILY to come together and #STOPKONY. this is not a joke. this is serious.” Kony is still at large. In May, rapper Chris Bown discovered that over one hundred people were massacred in Houla, Syria. “#HoulaMassacre OMG!!!!! Not cool!” he tweeted, calling on “Team Breezy”, his fan base, to “raise awareness”. His followers asked Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears to help oust Assad. And Twitter lit up like an Andy Warhol fever dream: slaughter and celebrity, brutality and brevity, replicated in a systematic stream.

Celebrity campaigns have long been criticised for their fickleness and superficiality. “Sustained awareness is what matters, awareness enough to care, to do something,” writes Jillian C York, a long-time advocate for Syrian rights, of Brown’s short-lived interest in the Arab world. Ethan Zuckerman, a scholar at MIT, measures attention to causes in units he dubs “Kardashians”, named for “amount of global attention Kim Kardashian commands across all media over the space of a day”. He notes that “at the peak of his infamy, Kony registers only 0.4 peak Kardashians, a level she achieved by filing for divorce after a 72 day marriage”. Since the arrest of Kony2012 video creator Jason Russell, interest in the arrest of Kony himself has plummeted.


 In focus: Russia’s Pussy Riot

But when one cause célèbre becomes passé, another arrives to take its place, as the jam-packed Pussy Riot bandwagon recently demonstrated. Hashtag campaigns like #FreePussyRiot or #Kony2012 have been faulted for emphasising awareness over action or understanding. The minimal effort required to participate in them has been derided as “slacktivism“, and their practitioners dismissed as thoughtless. But there is logic to the slacktivist pursuit. The ceaseless push for “awareness” – and the embrace of celebrities who can deliver it – is a rational response to the attention economy, which, unlike the real economy, shows no sign of weakness.

I want to Belieb

Awareness is supposed to lead people to take action. But in American society, awareness is action. Entire careers are devised around making people aware of a person’s existence without that person doing anything besides existing. The Kardashian family is sustained by tabloids and reality TV, industries that thrived while nearly all other old media failed. Publicity is chastised as crass – publicity mongers, publicity whores – but it is arguably a more reliable investment than education or attempting to ascend an unsteady corporate ladder. Fame eliminates the barriers to success in a world of increasingly unequal opportunity. Having achieved fame, one can then establish why one merits it, which is why Kardashian business ventures derive from their celebrity, and did not proceed or produce it.

Social media is not the only medium through which fame flows, but it is the one most associated with equitability. In my former life as a professor, I taught a course on the internet and society to students in their teens and early twenties. Inevitably, the conversation would turn to Justin Bieber. “But what about Justin Bieber?” the students asked when we read a book bemoaning the devastating effect of the internet on the music industry. “But what about Justin Bieber?” they cried when we read critiques of social media hierarchies.

Justin Bieber had come from nothing and pulled himself up by YouTube, the proverbial bootstrap of the digital age. No corporation assembled Justin Bieber. He put himself out on the internet and his talent was recognised. It is easy to see the allure of being a Belieber. The internet gives the illusion of possibility to a generation that, perhaps more than any in recent memory, has had their possibilities stripped away.

Justin Bieber is of course the exception to the rule – but because those who make up “the rule” are anonymous failures, his ascendancy is mistaken as representative. In an economy where Klout scores are listed on resumes, the downtrodden are by definition invisible. At the same time, social media allows a simulated intimacy between celebrities and their followers, who settle for glory by proxy. It is no surprise that Justin Bieber was one of the celebrities tapped by the Kony2012 campaign, whose goal was to “make Kony famous”, because fame is thought to determine relevance, to create caring, to force pragmatism from indifference.

Short memories

This pursuit of awareness for its own sake works well for the establishment of personal celebrity, but it is deleterious when it comes to the causes celebrities promote. When existence is mistaken for action, then being aware of someone’s existence feels like taking action. When attention is its own goal, nothing else gets accomplished.

As celebrities embrace causes, the coverage of those causes reflects celebrity values of self-promotion and spin. “I think those of us working on these issues should make sure we raise concerns about freedom of speech as a whole and avoid contributing to creating ‘superstars’ that may attract a lot of (short-term) empathy but maybe no real questioning of repressive patterns and the need to fight them,” argues Leila Nachawati, a Syrian-Spanish blogger and activist. Pussy Riot, the Russian dissidents who inspired the creation of balaclavas in “slimming black”, is a recent case in point. The Syrian fighter as sex symbol meme is another. Having trended, they become trends, divorced from the conditions that produced them, isolated from the anonymous activists fighting the same fight.

Perhaps that’s why celebrity activism seems least damaging when the damage has already been done. The Kardashians’ attempt to publicise a genocide – whether on Twitter or through a Very Special Episode of Khloe and Lamar – stands in sharp juxtaposition with Kim’s usual tweets on eye liner and jeggings, but it spurred millions to contemplate tragedy. In their ceaseless bid for our attention, the Kardashians shifted it elsewhere. It is hard to fault the pursuit of awareness when it creates fame for the forgotten.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.