By Christina Avalos, staff writer
We’ve all seen the images of President Obama modeling a Hitler-esque mustache on glossy banners around campus. Some of us may have even stopped by the LaRouche-sponsored table to find out why Obama is being compared to one of history’s most notorious dictators. However, most of Berkeley’s overwhelmingly liberal student body tends to pass them off as radicals who are simply insulting their esteemed Democratic leader without any real validity.
But what if the people holding these signs happened to be our favorite athlete, singer or movie star on a national platform, reaching millions of people? Would the argument be dismissed just as quickly? Or would their celebrity and ability to reach large groups of people at any time give them the power to actually influence public opinion?
Veterans haven’t forgotten the image of Jane Fonda straddling a Viet Cong anti-aircraft gun during a trip to North Vietnam in 1972. She heavily propagated her disapproval of the Vietnam War over several radio stations in Hanoi and became very involved in demonstrations once she returned to the U.S. by helping fund organizations that mobilized anti-war activists.
Her celebrity status brought a lot of publicity, not to mention controversy, to the anti-Vietnam War movement. At the time, a majority of the American public believed protesting against the Vietnam War was unpatriotic and un-American. Fonda’s opposition did very little to change this sentiment and she was later pressured to issue a public apology.
More recently, country singer Hank Williams Jr. was caught comparing President Obama to Hitler in an interview on Fox & Friends. He was criticizing Obama and House Speaker John Boehner for playing golf together, comparing it to, “Hitler playing golf with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.”
Celebolitics, or celebrities using their high-profile status to publicize their political views, isn’t a new phenomenon by any means. However, it has been exaggerated in recent years with advances in technology that have made social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter into primary forms of mass communication.
There are now millions of people following their favorite celebrities on a daily basis, but do these herds of fans mean that these firebrand celebrities will gain more political clout? According to UC Berkeley professor Jack Citrin, who will be teaching a “Public Opinion, Voting & Participation” course next semester, “it’s pretty hard to establish with scientific certitude what the effect of any of these messages are.” He notes that there are many different factors that influence public opinion, from the public’s existing political affiliations, to the validity of the celebrity making these candid remarks.
But it seems that in the world of superstardom, validity comes from more than just tweeting about the latest political scandal. Celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Wyclef Jean, and Bono are setting the bar high for celebrity activism through their global philanthropic work, including working with the UN, running for the Haitian presidency, and becoming a worldwide advocate for geopolitical activism, respectively.
Although most celebrities aren’t out saving the world, Professor Citrin asserts that even those who are active on Facebook and Twitter can influence the public. “Why do you think President Obama goes on The David Letterman Show? The idea is that it humanizes you, you’re reaching a lot of people, a lot of people who probably don’t pay that much attention to politics.”
No matter what your reaction may be to a celebrity’s political comments, the influx of celebrities in the realm of political dialogue is a positive thing. In a country where 40 percent of citizens didn’t participate in the last election, apathetic voters influence politics just as much as active voters. And with millions of people following the famous’ tweets and threads, celebrities may have the ability to spark political consciousness where others have struggled to do so in the past.
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