Matthew D Atkinson and Darin DeWitt

 

Celebrity political advocacy can help gain media traction for a particular issue, but it fails to promote citizen engagement. 

When George Clooney was arrested at the Sudanese embassy, he wanted to draw elite and mass attention to a humanitarian crisis in Sudan and thereby pressure the US government into action. This type of celebrity activism is increasingly common. But is it effective?

Many North American scholars have argued that celebrities can successfully raise public awareness on a political issue. In Europe, a competing school of thought contends that the mass public is largely disengaged and that the effectiveness of celebrities is due to their influence on political elites. In our recent paper, we tested these schools of thought.

George Clooney calling attention to a humanitarian crisis is merely a starting point in the political mobilisation process. The key question is whether Clooney’s advocacy drove public concern and pressured the government to act. Apublic that begins to take an active interest in the humanitarian crisis as a result of Clooney's efforts incites an electorally motivated response by political officeholders. But a public passively encountering George Clooney discussing a humanitarian crisis in Sudan places few constraints on whether or how politicians deal with the issue regardless of how well reported the stunt was. 

If a celebrity calls attention to a significant policy issue, does the media cover that effort and, in turn, do members of the public take steps to become informed?

To evaluate these questions, we used an original dataset of US congressional committee hearings. At these hearings, members of Congress invite expert witnesses to share information and attract attention for an issue. While witness lists are typically composed of government officials, academics, and interest group representatives, they occasionally include celebrities

Between 2008 and 2014, 69 congressional hearings featured expert testimony from entertainment and sports celebrities (e.g., Sheryl Crow, Jeff Daniels, Nicole Kidman, Jada Pinkett Smith). We compared the New York Times’scoverage of issues discussed in congressional hearings that featured celebrity witnesses to those without and found the newspaper was 3 times more likely to report on an issue if there was a celebrity at the congressional hearing. 

Celebrities provide their pet issues with a much better chance of gaining national news attention. But, does celebrity political advocacy spur individuals to engage with the advocated issue by seeking additional information on the internet?

To evaluate this question, we compared Wikipedia page views of the issues discussed in congressional hearings that featured celebrity witnesses to comparable hearings without celebrity witnesses. We looked at Wikipedia articles with information relevant to the congressional hearings in our study, and we calculated how traffic to these articles changed in the twenty days before a hearing and the twenty days following a hearing, relative to typical daily traffic. 

Congressional hearings alone drive attention to issues. Figure 1 shows that page views for all relevant Wikipedia articles spike in the days following a congressional hearing into a certain topic. Having a celebrity present does not drive more attention (as measured by Wikipedia traffic) to the issue discussed at a hearing. The two curves in our plot – one for celebrity cases and another for non-celebrity cases – are statistically indistinguishable. 

To transform political outcomes, celebrity activists must pressure elected officeholders into action by drawing the public into debate. Yet, as Figure 1 demonstrates, celebrities do not mobilise the mass public to engage with their advocated issue. 

New communication technologies have created many new avenues for celebrities to communicate with the public about politics. In theory, celebrities can encourage citizens to use the internet’s search tools to learn about and follow an issue. Yet, in practice, our evidence suggests that celebrities cannot easily employ their cultural capital to successfully promote policy change.

 

Matthew D. Atkinson is an assistant professor of political science at Long Beach City College.

Darin DeWitt is an assistant professor of political science at California State University, Long Beach. 

 

Image: Courtney