Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
On Thursday, a single post on social media was blamed for costing Snapchat $1.3 billion in market value. The tweet wasn’t from a head of state threatening to ban the app, or the company itself announcing major losses. It was from a reality TV star who doesn’t like the platform’s new layout.
“sooo does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore? Or is it just me… ugh this is so sad,” Kylie Jenner tweeted the day before.
The episode is just the latest evidence that celebrities wield way too much power on social media – and that the platforms themselves need to help fix the problem.
The influence celebrities brandish on social media today is staggering. Consider this: Katy Perry and Justin Bieber have more followers on Twitter than President Donald Trump or former President Barack Obama.
Earlier this month, Jenner’s picture of her baby Stormi got more likes than any photo ever before on Instagram. And celebs don’t just capture the attention of America on social media. They also profoundly influence behavior. A 2014 study by Defy Media found that 63% of millennials would take a YouTube celebrity’s advice to check out a company or product.
Of course, the relationship between celebs and social media is symbiotic. Stars wield huge influence – and sometimes earn lots of money for sponsored tweets – thanks to the social media platforms they use.
Last year, a study by Whosay found that “tier 2” celebrities like the actor Nick Cannon and the model Kimora Lee Simmons are on average paid $32,400 for each post they make on social media for brands. At the same time, the astonishing Snapchat stock selloff shows just how reliant social media platforms are on celebrities.
It shouldn’t be this way. The promise of social media was to democratize our public debates by giving everyone a voice. In an open letter to his daughter in 2015, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote that he aspired to “connect the world so you have access to every idea, person and opportunity.” But if her Facebook feed is primarily filled with posts by the likes of Perry, Bieber and Jenner, that won’t be happening on her dad’s platform.
Celebrities also aren’t usually our best sources of information. For example, celebs who talk publicly about health issues sometimes lead people to make decisions that medical professionals wouldn’t advise.
Take Angelina Jolie’s public announcement that she has the BRCA gene, which puts women at higher risk of breast cancer. After Jolie revealed this an article in The New York Times, and discussed her preventative double mastectomy, there was a spike in women getting the BRCA test, but more women didn’t undergo mastectomies, according to a Harvard study– suggesting that Jolie’s announcement caused stress but didn’t help identify the people at true risk of the disease.
Wouldn’t it have been better if all those women had instead gotten their information from doctors?
And while celebs sometimes talk about social issues on the Internet, regrettably, it isn’t their usual focus. Wouldn’t it be better if our conversations on social media focused on things like what our country should do about health care, immigration and the opioid epidemic, rather than what brands celebs like Jenner are wearing?
To encourage this, social media platforms should build algorithms that prioritize the posts of the people to whom Americans should be paying attention, like politicians, people tackling social issues, and local members of our communities. Platforms can do this by making posts from such people appear more prominently and frequently on users’ feeds.
Social media companies should also pay more attention to users themselves. Well before Jenner’s tweet, more than 1.2 million people signed a Change.org petition letting Snapchat know they didn’t like its new layout. If Snapchat had responded to these people faster, the company wouldn’t be facing the losses it just experienced.
On Thursday, Snapchat became a victim of the undue influence Jenner wields in America. But companies like Snapchat are also part of the solution. They and all of us need to start paying less attention to celebrities and more attention to the people in our society who really matter.