Fear of online reprisal is sucking the originality out of celebrities and forcing all of us to self-censor. Here’s why that needs to end.
In 1986, Smash Hits magazine probed the teen heartthrobs of the day about who they were going to vote for in the upcoming general election. George Michael dithered over whether to vote tactically for Labour despite his opposition to their arms policy, Gary Numan explained why he thought the Tories were best placed to deal with unemployment, and Boy George explained his support for the Ecology Party. Almost no one interviewed tried to sit on the fence or said, “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, as long as you vote!”
Back then, part of being a popstar was having opinions. Celebrities in the Eighties might have been more open about their personal views, but they had fewer opportunities to spout them. If you wanted to hear what your idol thought about the world, you had to wait until they gave an interview or went on TV. Lily Allen was one of the first artists to change that relationship, posting songs and cocksure missives directly to her MySpace page. Once she had 25,000 friends on her page– a number that by modern social media standards seems minuscule but was described by the Observer at the time as “staggering” – her label started rush-releasing her singles, bowled over by her online wizardry.
All of that now seems rather quaint. Today we’re constantly plugged into the lives of our favourite celebrities: we see where they went last night and what they’re thinking when they wake up. You would think the huge platform provided by social media would lead to more exciting idols who are able not just to give a few soundbites, but to envelop you in an entire world – their music forming part of a larger persona. But sometimes it feels like the opposite has happened.
With a few notable exceptions, a lot of celebrities today will happily fill their feeds with outfit changes and empty platitudes, but are terrified of expressing an opinion. By some measures, Kylie Jenner is one of the most famous people on the planet right now – she has 137 million Instagram followers. Yet most of us would be hard-pushed to say what she believes in. She’s part of a new generation of star who posts lots but says little. Many are opinionated, smart people for whom the fear of saying the wrong thing is greater than the desire to express themselves. They’ve seen their contemporaries get ‘cancelled’ and they don’t want to be next.
“Pile-ons can happen from even the most well-intentioned comment or observation,” says Grace Medford, a music industry professional who has helped a number of artists with their online personas. Some of these pile-ons, as Grace puts it, come from a good place. We’ve all seen someone say something repugnant online and wanted to admonish them for it. Twitter has been crucial in helping women call out decades of sexual harassment, in demanding better representation for minority groups in public life and highlighting the way in which prejudice exists at many levels of British public life. But sometimes it can have the opposite effect, entrenching privilege rather than exposing it.
After all, it’s not just famous people who have to watch what they post. Social media has made potential celebrities of us all, and saying the wrong thing online can have dire consequences. Poppy Noor is a journalist focusing on issues around race, social justice and communities. She used to be active on Twitter, but quickly found it unbearable. “You’ve written something and then your phone starts popping off and it’s all negative,” she says. “Piers Morgan and Katie Hopkins are getting involved, attacking you. It’s really bad for your mental health and, honestly, it scares me. Far-right vlogger Sargon of Akkad made a video about me. For a while, I genuinely thought I might be attacked in the street.”
Now, Noor only retweets others and posts links to her articles. “I’ve definitely felt silenced,” she says. “I made an agreement with myself that I wasn’t going to comment on race, the structure is still so in favour of white privilege, it’s not safe.”
It’s not just political sentiments that people have to be careful about. Luke Ferris is a social media expert who has run accounts for several big brands, yet even he struggles with what to post. “As somebody who works in social media, you have to be so careful about what you say,” he says. “Essentially everything you post is a real-time exercise for a future job interview.”
Ferris recently went to a “hilariously bad” gig and posted funny Instagram stories. “They were so unlikely to be seen by the artist or their team, but there was a slight risk I could’ve been pulled up at work. It was lingering in my mind all night.” What ends up happening is that people like Ferris and Noor get pushed away from social media for fear of reprisal, whereas people who have nothing to lose carry on unabashed. That’s why Twitter can feel like it’s full of privileged, privately educated, middle-class white men – your Toby Youngs and Giles Corens – spouting questionable opinions. The website supposed to democratise our commentariat has a tendency to instead reproduce inequalities.
“There’s a trend for supporting fashionable political topics and shaming people who have the wrong views, but I think it often shuts down discussion of less obvious issues or grey areas,” says Ferris. “That’s why abrasive people thrive on social media; the over-sanitised world we have moved into creates a space where anyone ‘telling it like it is’ seems refreshing, even if they’re saying something awful.”
There are, of course, wonderful exceptions. People like the US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and British writer and activist Ash Sarkar go round-for-round with their foes, showing a new way forward for politics. Artists like Chance the Rapper and Stormzy have been able to bring a thoughtful, combative and often funny tone. Then there’s Allen, still always tweeting her mind with no fear of what might happen next. That’s not always an option for those of us who balk at the idea of being yelled at online or fear reprisals at work. If you’re like me, you may have given up on trying to post meaningfully, instead opting for safe memes and irony-laden gags. But instead of being scared, perhaps we should just be selective.
Pick a few topics you know well, and post honestly and thoughtfully about them. On topics you know less well, amplify others’ voices and research before you wade in. We should also be pressuring public figures to promote ideas when they have the platform. Their voices can make a difference: when Taylor Swift, after a decade of refusing to make any sort of political statement, endorsed Tennessee Democrats Phil Bredesen and Jim Cooper and asked people to register to vote on her Instagram, voter registrations surged in the state. She knew it would alienate many of her Republican fans, but she did it anyway.
Today’s stars should take the risk of expressing themselves. Sometimes they can say things that others can’t.
Images: Chris Bianchi @ Debut Art, Sarah Brick, Getty