Celebrities for development in the age of New media and ICTs
Development scholars need to take celebrity more seriously than they do at present. Celebrity is an active force within development affairs. – Dan Brockington (2014:3)
Over the years and through many examples, celebrities and famous people have served as ambassadors, icons or figure heads in humanitarian and development work, striving to bring about positive social change. In some cases, of course, some of these celebrities have been known to do more harm than good, while in other cases some have contributed immensely to the betterment of lives. As a result it can be naïve to talk of celebrity acts in the humanitarian development sector as simply good or bad. In this post, I am going to discuss some ways in which celebrity figures have used their influence and profiles to try to bring about social development and change within their countries of residence and abroad. I will discuss the digital platforms that have been used to help realise this goal as well as the opportunities these platforms have provided for interaction, publicity, engagement and discussion of the underlying issues of development involved.
As the communications landscape gets denser, more complex, and more participatory, the networked population is gaining greater access to information, more opportunities to engage in public speech, and an enhanced ability to undertake collective action. – (Shirky, C. 2010: 1)
The rapid evolution in media and communication technologies has meant also a sharp need for adjusting from the traditional into the new media platforms. By far one of the biggest aspects that differentiates traditional news sources like radio, television and newspapers (before the internet age), from their digitalized online versions, is the possibility to engage and interact with the readers and audience and get quick feedback. This can be through, for example, opinions, criticism or praise concerning the news they have just consumed. This dimension has been magnified further by the possibility of linking and sharing news articles on social media, it amplifies readership and consequently the nature and traffic of comments, opinions and general views shared. This means that “hot issues “in the news are debated and discussed upon, not just by newspaper subscribers, but even by casual scrollers on social media. All this happens across giant leaps of space and time, as is characteristic of this digital age.
Apparently, by having internet access and a Twitter account, I am guaranteed to constantly get wind of some “news” and “real hot issues” taking place, in the western world and beyond. Personally, I like news about positive social change or “development” news. As broad and slippery as the phrase “development work” is, I can, at best, narrow it down as describing all efforts aimed at bringing about “positive” social change which results in improving the life conditions of individuals or a group of beneficiaries. It can be news about joint efforts in dealing with the devastating effects of climate change on villagers or communities somewhere or about resettling huge populations that have been displaced by armed conflicts. As can be noted, while the forms of news platforms have changed from traditional to online, some of the content focus and biases tend to remain the same.
A famous American writer, Mark Twain, once said, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.” In this modern era, the word “newspaper” here, would stretch to include posts on social media also, which of course did not exist in Twain´s time. In this day and age, I believe the risk of being mis-informed grows bigger with each new user posting a comment online. How to separate fact and opinion, bias and truth, information and mis-information are some of the challenges we face today while engaging online.
Problems like poverty, inequality, injustice, lack of freedom and abuse of human rights are widely portrayed in the media as characteristic of the global south, having the effect of hindering development. Consequently, also common in the media, is news about how the democratic and empowered westerners have pledged to uproot these problems and make the world a better place. I remember once, growing up in Zimbabwe, fantasizing about how perfect things must be in the developed countries, for them to volunteer resources to aid the suffering of the world. I felt guilty, if not ashamed, to question this humanitarianism. Occasionally, though, the bubble pops or some “cog in the machinery” lets out a loud squeak, nudging the western locomotive a bit off-course, revealing that, fighting injustices and human rights abroad does not mean that there are none at home.
My attention was grabbed by one such incident, last week, when I got a tweet (above) posted by the New York times about Donald Trump´s reaction to National Football League (NFL) players, “bending the knee”, during the singing of the American anthem, in protest of racial injustices, which include racial profiling, of African Americans by the police. Though similar issues have been the focus of campaigns by the activist group, “Black Lives Matter” over the years, what appealed to me most about this particular protest, was the fact that it was being mostly done by celebrities. Perhaps, I don´t need to mention this if you already know, but over the years, development work, has seen a growing number of celebrities from the music, film and other industries, display solidarity with the suffering victims of poverty, sickness and injustice and fundraising for their aid. Thus, transforming their celebrity profiles into humanitarian icons.
“ Celebrity can also be read semiotically, in terms of the signs it represents”
– – Dan Brockington (2014:5)
These predominantly African –American football players have, by kneeling, transformed themselves into representations of discontent and have assumed the face of African-Americans shot, imprisoned or unjustly treated by the American legal system as well as any other who might fall victim to this racial profiling, if the change they are advocating for does not come. Exploring its [celebrity] presence and influence helps us to understand some of the forces shaping the presentation of development issues in the global North, as well as how different publics are responding to them and how development stories can become, or fail to become, compelling. (Ibid: 3)
This new wave of protest has been hushtaged #takingaknee or #bendaknee. It has presented itself as a different kind of celebrity action for social change and development work, in that it is not a fundraising campaign and the celebrities involved are not contracted by an NGO to do their activism. It is free will and an act of an individual´s freedom to express, that has been the weapon used by these players to make a statement and call for change. American football is one of the biggest symbols of American culture. To have the iconic players of that sport assume a position of protest during the singing of the American anthem and hoisting or the American flag (apparently two more of the biggest symbols of American culture), is to present a nation divided, and this is exactly how you could describe America, if you would go by the reactions to this protest, as presented on social media and online news platforms.
Two huge positions were presented, one which, siding with Trump, saw the kneeling as being against America and a disrespect of the flag, the nation and countless soldiers who died “for the country”. On the other side, which included some war veterans, saw the protesters as citizens exercising their right to peaceful protest, which are some of the values the very flag and anthem represents and what the soldiers died for. Some of those ball players protesting expressed how wrong it is to pride in a nation that discriminates, victimises and abuses its citizens because of the colour of their skin. In an article written by John Legend, an award winning musician,
“…these protests are their own form of a pledge-of-allegiance[…] not some arbitrary statement about a flag [….]They are an attempt to educate the public that criminal justice—mass incarceration, lengthy sentences, police brutality—is the civil rights issue of our time.”
Much can be said about the varied views that were expressed online, but what I will concentrate on, rather, is the sheer effectiveness displayed by the new media technology as a platform capable and ready to capture comments, views and opinions coming from audiences the world over and publicising them as well as allowing media houses and individual users of social media and the internet to constantly update and upload more – on- the -minute developments, recounts and content. American playwrite, Arthur Miller once remarked, “ A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.” Could this be indeed what Jorgen Habermas refered to as the public sphere. A platform that makes it possible for “citizens” to engage and express. One where those in power are held accountable.
Certainly, by giving his ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now” speech, in front of the media, Trump opened a can of worms and caused a ripple of protests that he might not have anticipated. By further criticizing the NFL and threatening protesting players exercising their democratic right, Trump was accused of being undemocratic, divisive and ignorant of the realities of America. Each time he tweeted, more public reactions manifested online, ranging from other athletes in different sporting disciplines, musicians , war veterans and more joining the knee bending to dozens more on social media posting their views. One might say that, apart from serving as a public sphere, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT´s), in the form of digital media being used to protest against injustice and to advocate for human rights and non-discrimination, are serving a development purpose, thus qualifying as an ICT4D initiative.
At much about the same time, as NFL protest, another ICT4D initiative was underway. The media was also a buzz with news about the 5th year running, Global Citizen Festival (GCF)being hosted in New York city. According to the organizers´ website, the event aimed at advocating, “for freedom, for justice and for all “. As its name suggests, the Global Citizen Festival, has a global focus and has, since 2015, aligned its goals with the United Nations ´ 17 Sustainable Development Goals to end global poverty by 2030. Incidentally, this year the week-long event coincided with the UN´s annual leaders´ meeting, increasing chances of “being heard”. Through conferences, star-studded music concerts, speeches and gatherings on the streets, in churches around town and on online platforms, the global citizens took action by raising money, signing petitions, lifting banners and protesting against global injustices that threaten freedom and justice and cause extreme poverty. The event can be described as a great show of humanitarianism and concern for each other´s welfare, as global citizens. The GCF was broadcasted live across the world through the Global Citizen Project´s You tube channel and participation on its social media platforms was quite huge. Apart from having Stevie Wonder bend his knee on stage during performance at the GCF, these two examples of protest have many other things in common, primarily, the use of social media and online channels as tools for advocating for social change and soliciting public participation, support and solidarity.
With this in mind, one can understand that the existence and availability of an online platform and an online public, characteristic of this digital age, promotes possibilities for widespread engagement, participation, expression and reaction all on a shared platform. According to Brockington (2014:3), the importance of celebrity in communicating poverty and development issues is likely to increase. The influence of new information and media technologies might also be viewed as likely to increase. Please share your thoughts concerning this topic in the comments section below.
Brockington Dan (2014) The production and construction of celebrity advocacy in international development, Third World Quarterly, 35:1, 88-108, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2014.868987
Habermas, Jürgen (1964/1974). The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article, New German Critique 3, pp.49-55.
Shirky, C. 2010: The political power of social media technology, the public sphere, and political change, Foreign Affairs 90: 28-I.
Brady Henderson (Sept 2017) Information about players who protested during week 3 of football season , ESPN homepage: Seattle Seahawks http://www.espn.com/blog/nflnation/post/_/id/249755/nfl-players-who-protested-during-the-national-anthem-in-week-3
Bryan Armen Graham (Saturday 23 September 2017 23.43 BST) Donald Trump blasts NFL anthem protesters: ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field’. The Guardian.
Global Citizen Festival website https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/festival/2017/gcweek/
Teodorczuk Tom (Sept 25, 2017 11:47 a.m. ET) Stevie Wonder, ‘1984’ cast and Michael Moore take a knee to support NFL protests, Market watch