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Here’s what celebrities really owe the general public in a pandemic


  • People are looking to celebrities for financial contributions during the coronavirus pandemic; Many are left disappointed when they donate less than 0.5% of their reported net worths. 
  • A celebrity’s role during a global crisis, however, is more nuanced than giving away their life earnings. Rather, they have an obligation to elevate expert’s findings, communicate factually accurate information, and set an example for the general public. 
  • Although many celebrities — like Jesse Eisenberg, John Krasinski, and Lady Gaga — are leveraging their resources to do so, others — such as Ellen DeGeneres, Dr. Phil, and Vanessa Hudgens — undermine their efforts by issuing tone-deaf, out-of-touch comments.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

At a time when more than 33 million Americans have filed for unemployment and people have grown increasingly concerned about meeting everyday expenses, many are looking to celebrities to hand over their vast fortunes. 

But expecting Hollywood’s elite to donate sizable portions of their net worths is unrealistic. And even if they did give more, their contributions would make minuscule progress in the journey toward relief, gaining inches when we need an unprecedented amount of miles.

Instead, the celebrity holds much greater responsibility during a global health crisis: to reverberate experts’ information, serve as an example, and spread hope.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Angelina Jolie, Bruno Mars, and other famous figures have given money to various emergency relief funds and charities during the pandemic. Lizzo bought lunches for hospital workers across the country, and Rihanna sent much-needed medical equipment to New York, the epicenter of the virus in the US, as case numbers were rapidly rising and necessary supplies were becoming increasingly scarce. 

“Perhaps the only civic duty of a wealthy person in this moment, besides leveraging her platform to communicate accurate information, is to leverage her capital,” Doreen St. Felix wrote in The New Yorker

Yet even as celebrities with the most capital give to organizations, their contributions have been criticized. When Kylie Jenner donated $1 million, some fans decried that it was “only” .1% of her $1 billion net worth. Oprah Winfrey faced the same backlash after donating $10 million, approximately .38% of her $2.6 billion reported net worth. 

 

“It’s the craziest thing. The Kylie Jenner comments yesterday were even worse after she donated a million,” one person wrote on Twitter on March 27, two days after outlets initially reported her donation. 

On the same day that the news of Jenner’s donation broke, the Senate passed a $2 trillion stimulus bill, which, when passed, was the largest economic aid package in modern American history. Congress has thus far passed a series of four bills aimed to relieve the shut down’s economic damage, and on Friday, House lawmakers approved a $3 trillion aid package.

While much of that money bypasses America’s working class and poor as the result of a largely flawed system, it should’ve become clear from the first bill that a 1%, 10%, or even 50% larger donation by Winfrey or Jenner would be a mere drop in the bucket. 

We need much more than celebrities can give us, and while their donations are necessary, our government should be held accountable for providing — and properly allocating — funding.

“There are some people at the very bottom of this pyramid that get screwed over and need help, and celebrity donations alone aren’t going to solve it. It didn’t in the Great Depression, and it’s not going to now,” Mark Harvey, the author of “Celebrity Influence: Politics, Persuasion, and Issue-Based Advocacy” and the director of graduate programs at the University of Saint Mary, told Insider. 

While celebrities’ money may act as a short-term bandage on the problem that our country is scrambling to fix, they have other resources that can make an even greater impact.

Following the NBA’s decision to halt the remainder of its 2020 season, Golden State Warriors player Stephen Curry went on Instagram live to interview Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. The nation’s top disease expert has researched illnesses and viruses such as HIV, AIDS, SARS, Zika, Ebola, tuberculosis, malaria, and now, COVID-19. 

The 30-minute interview, which debunked similarities between the flu and COVID-19 and covered preliminary safety measures, held an audience of nearly 50,000 viewers.

“The celebrity has a platform. By definition, that’s what the celebrity is. We give that person that platform. In the best of worlds, the celebrity uses that platform to help people understand diseases, to help people get money for specific diseases, to help people understand the science,” Paul Offit, co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine and author of “Bad Advice: Or Why Celebrities, Politicians, and Activists Aren’t Your Best Source of Health Information,” told Insider.

We’ve seen celebrities use their platforms for good. Jenner, who has over 176 million Instagram followers, admittedly thought she was doing enough until the US Surgeon General Jerome Adams pleaded with her on an episode of “Good Morning America” to use her platform to speak about the importance of social distancing. 

 

After viewing his message, she directly addressed her followers, who are largely millennials and members of Generation Z that may be asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers, and asked them to stay home. 

Stay safe everyone!

A post shared by Kylie Jenner News (@kyliesnapchat) on Mar 19, 2020 at 3:49pm PDT

 

“Celebrities can be powerful advocates for science and technology and can help us translate science and technology in some ways that scientists can’t,” Offit told Insider.

“Scientists are always translating in their head when they deal with the public from the jargon that is their profession to what they think people can understand. The celebrity, in many ways, can do that better,” he added.

More celebrities need to be resharing scientists’ and experts’ information like Curry and (eventually) Jenner did.

In a time when companies are selling products that are fraudulently advertised to prevent or treat COVID-19, misinformation and propaganda is rapidly spreading online, and President Donald Trump says that injecting disinfectants could be a potential cure on live television, the need for factual, scientifically-based information is dire. 

So when non-epidemiologists Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Phil McGraw spread incorrect information about COVID-19, Winfrey, who gave both celebrity doctors platforms on her show, has a responsibility to speak out and dispel any subsequent confusion. 

 

“If you’re a star, people are more likely to pay attention,” Harvey said, sharing that his previous studies have suggested that when celebrities speak out on an issue, they can have further reach than some government officials. 

At one point during Curry’s Instagram livestream with Fauci, former President Barack Obama signed on to watch the interview. Amidst the consistent stream of fans’ questions, remarks, and thumbs-up emojis, Obama left a comment thanking both Curry and Fauci.

“Listen to the science,” he wrote.

By spearheading meaningful initiatives and bringing positivity during an unprecedented time, celebrities can use their power for society’s benefit 

When Los Angeles residents were told to shelter-in-place in mid-March, Jesse Eisenberg, his wife, and their 3-year-old child set off for Bloomington, Indiana, in their RV to volunteer and fundraise for a domestic violence shelter, the actor told The Hollywood Reporter. He explained that he and his wife feel “deeply connected” to the shelter, which his mother-in-law ran for 35 years.

“When we got here on the first day, my wife and I got a text message from Amy Schumer, who is a new friend of ours, saying that she would be donating $50,000 to the shelter,” he said. “I am going to match it, but we are also going to try to build a campaign to encourage people to look out for their local domestic violence shelters.”

His decision to volunteer at the shelter, Middle Way House, drew attention to a global issue at a time when domestic abuse cases are on the rise in the US and across the world as people shelter at home during the pandemic. 

“More so than giving money specifically, but showing that you’re out there recognizing that there’s been a huge hit to people who are poor, and that they care about people who are poor,” Offit told Insider of celebrities’ role during the pandemic. “That’s really where the rubber meets the road.”

Other celebrities have used their massive followings, resources, and high-profile connections to exercise the same boots-to-the-ground activism from their homes. 

John Krasinski, for example, asked his 2.5 million Twitter followers to send him heartwarming stories and created “Some Good News,” a YouTube series that shares everyday people’s uplifting stories to combat anxiety and fear during the pandemic.

The videos have drawn an audience as large as 17 million people, and unlike many other celebrities that have hosted Q&As or tell-alls, the “Office” actor barely speaks about himself at all. 

“I’m John Krasinski, and if it isn’t clear yet, I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing,” he said before delivering the news on the first episode. 

But after Krasinski told the story of a young girl returning home after her final chemotherapy treatment and hosted a virtual prom for high schoolers that missed their senior year festivities, it became clear that the actor knew exactly what he was doing.

He was investing time trying to make us feel good. 

 

For her part, Lady Gaga tapped on corporate leaders and philanthropists to fundraise $35 million in seven days for the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund and organized a virtual festival called “One World: Together at Home.”

Artists like Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Paul McCartney, and The Rolling Stones performed remotely. Between the songs, Global Citizen aired videos of frontline workers to share their own messages, giving everyday people a voice. 

 

Gaga clarified that she wasn’t asking for fans to donate and told them to “put your wallet away, put anything away that you need to, and sit back and enjoy the show that you all very much deserve.” The concert raised $127.9 million for COVID-19 relief efforts.

When Ellen DeGeneres likens self-isolation in her California mansion to jail and Madonna calls COVID-19 the “great equalizer” from a rose petal-filled bathtub, it’s easy for the general public to feel burnt out on celebrities and dismiss them as tone-deaf and futile.

Take Justin Bieber and Hailey Bieber (née Baldwin), who told fans that they’ve “acknowledged” that others are suffering during the pandemic but “can’t feel bad for the things we have” in a video recorded from their mansion in Canada. Or Vanessa Hudgens complaining about missing Coachella, telling fans on an Instagram livestream that COVID-19 deaths are “terrible” yet “inevitable.” 

 

Even Jenner, who preached social distancing, ultimately didn’t follow her own advice. She was recently accused of ignoring shelter-in-place guidelines by inviting her friend Anastasia “Stassie” Karanikolaou over to her newly-purchased mansion and filling her followers’ feeds with videos of their time together. 

The Biebers, Hudgens, and Jenner all faced backlash for their poor choice of words and ill-informed actions, but Harvey’s findings prove that when some of the nation’s most prominent mouthpieces give life to misinformation rather than serving as an example and communicating experts’ findings, it’s not only disappointing — it’s dangerous. 

According to Vox, the conspiracy theory citing 5G technology as a cause for COVID-19 was floating around the internet in mid-January but “really took off when celebrities started to tell their followers about the supposed link between of 5G and the pandemic.”

Keri Hilson, John Cusack, and Woody Harrelson all fell for, and reshared, incorrect information about 5G’s role during the pandemic, giving rise to the conspiracy theory that caused people to harass telecom technicians and led to arson and vandalism of telecom gear in the UK, The New York Times reported. 

When feel-good news reports and benefit concerts are forced to compete with stories like a wave of arson attacks and the potential fall of a household name, the public tends to focus on the latter, showing that a few celebrities’ wrongdoings can undermine the good ignited by others.

There’s no guidebook advising celebrities how to act during a global health crisis, but experts like Offit agree that the answer isn’t giving away all of their money; not all celebrities have complete access to their reported net worths, and their role isn’t as simple as donating their life savings.

But speaking out about issues, encouraging people to social distance, and elevating scientists’ work has more lasting effects.

Because as an actor who drove 30 hours to volunteer at a domestic abuse shelter and a basketball player who interviewed the nation’s leading infectious disease expert both proved, celebrities can do much more than write a check.

“Whether they like it or not, there’s a certain price that comes with celebrity, and that price is that people look to you. They look to you for moral guidance. They look to you for leadership. They look to you for good information. They do. And that’s the price that comes with celebrities,” Offit told Insider. 

“I think you have to pay it.”

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