For more than 20 years I have studied the effects of celebrities on the political beliefs and vote choices of their fans. The evidence is clear that celebrity endorsements of candidates and ideas influence their fans to support the candidates celebrities support, and to agree with their beliefs.
As the coronavirus pandemic has developed, some celebrities have said and done helpful things while others have spread some very wrong and destructive information about the disease. Because their words influence their fans, celebrities have a responsibility to provide correct information to help their fans during this global crisis.
On the very wrong and destructive side of things, actor Woody Harrelson has shared on Instagram the crazy and discredited conspiracy theory that 5G towers contribute to the spread of coronavirus. The incident was mentioned in a recent study by Reuters Institute on “Types, sources and claims of COVID-19 misinformation.” Harrelson’s post received more than 18,000 likes among his 2 million followers.
On the positive side of things, Lady Gaga organized a virtual concert to support the World Health Organization, which aired April 18. Called “One World: Together at Home,” the concert featured a bevy of popular musicians such as The Rolling Stones, John Mayer and Lizzo.
Lady Gaga has said that she organized the concert to draw attention to what she calls “the singularly kind global community that is emerging” as dozens of countries are forced to manage the pandemic.
Why does any of this celebrity activity matter?
First, celebrities are uniquely qualified to bring attention to issues, especially among people who might not be regular news consumers. The New York Times described the concert as “full of stay-inside advisories alongside tributes to and testimonials from health care workers, volunteer initiatives and international officials fighting the pandemic. It also extolled palliative efforts by corporations and it urged viewers to pressure governments to provide far more extensive testing.” This is very responsible celebrity activism.
Celebrities also provide useful shortcuts their fans can take to arrive at positions on complicated matters they may not have the time to research fully. Scholars describe the process with the term “heuristic,” and sometimes think of it as a process where one substitutes a question for which he or she does not know the answer with a question for which there is an easily accessible answer. People might not even be aware they are doing it.
The actual question might be “What is causing the coronavirus pandemic?” Answering that question would require a huge amount of research and knowledge about medicine, public health, and statistics. If you are not a fan of Woody Harrelson (or any celebrity who takes public political positions) what follows might seem absurd, but it is not.
Harrelson’s fans might instead ask, “What does he think is causing the pandemic?” This is because they have developed a history with Harrelson as they have experienced his acting and activism, and have come to trust what he says about politics and life outside his art.
This is not to say that fans mindlessly accept what celebrities have to say, any more than union members or newspaper readers uncritically accept the political endorsements of those organizations. But celebrity position-taking provides busy citizens with a simpler route to understanding.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, celebrities exerted positive and negative political influence. As the crisis proceeds, they are continuing to do so. It would be helpful if celebrities took a responsible approach to their influence, as Lady Gaga has, and if organizations with true information could persuade celebrities to disseminate it for them.
We’re all in this together, but some of us have more power to bring about a positive outcome.
David James Jackson is a professor of political science at Bowling Green State University.