The attention economy and influencing of influencers

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 21 May 2024

Celebrities are being blocked if they don't call out Israel in the war with Gaza. That might look like a social media-fed waste of time, but in an 'attention economy', maybe it's not

Students gather at Auckland University's city campus to rally against Israel's war in Gaza on 1 May 2024.

 #blockout2024 was launched to block celebrities who weren't using their resources to help those in dire need.  Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

The intensity of it, ironically, can feel like bullying. 

Social media activism is reaching something of a peak with the war in Gaza, using the hashtag #Blockout2024. 

It started at this year's MetGala when influencer and model Haley Kalil was caught on video muttering 'let them eat cake' - suddenly TikTokers were calling for her head. 

A digital movement called the 'digitine' - digital guillotine - was launched to block celebrities who weren't using their resources to help those in dire need. 

Auckland University Humanities professor Neal Curtis says this is the 'attention economy' in action. 

He talks to The Detail about the platforming of free speech, the influence of America in everything to do with social media, and the absence of moderation on the big tech companies including Facebook, X and YouTube. 

"People like Elon Musk don't want to moderate Twitter (X) - he's sacked all of his moderation team practically," says Curtis. "Facebook seems to only moderate women who are breastfeeding - Facebook has a very limited notion of moderation. I think what we're seeing here is a problem where, because these tech companies are American, we're seeing an extension of the First Amendment globally." 

In the Unites States, the right to free speech is "pretty much an absolute right" says Curtis. "You can say what you like, whenever you like. 

"But of course what people don't understand is that nobody is obliged to platform your speech. So most of the social media companies have gone for a low moderation route - just let everybody speak. I mean Twitter is openly inviting explicit neo-Nazis back to Twitter, because it gets engagement .. even if the far right aren't responding, the left are responding and trying to cancel; call out; and it just gets more data, more traction, more eyeballs, more attention.

"Because we live in an attention economy. It's all about making money from getting people's attention."

That attention economy is how #Blockout2024 is gaining momentum. 

The logic of it is that celebrities are making fortunes from their large number of followers, so losing those followers is a type of pressure and will impact on their advertising revenue.   

Hardly fair - or is it?  Actors, singers and models can't be expected to be fully informed about conflicts, and then be forced into speaking out. 

Dr Sabrina Moro, who lectures in media, film and communication at Otago University, says anyone who has an influence has some level of responsibility.

"Obviously I'm not asking celebrities to be experts on this question, but they have the capacity to orient the (discussion) towards these issues.

"It's not a coincidence that in justice campaigns we have celebrities who are asked to be spokespeople for those campaigns. I think all of these forms of activism are valid." 

How does #Blocked2024 work? 

"If celebrities are blocked, they can't make as much money - it's tapping where it hurts," she says. That particularly applies to influencers. 

She says there have been some celebrities who have responded, posting links to donation sites  - Lizzo is one example - but it's unclear if that's because they want to speak out, or because their PR teams tell them to. 

As far as the social media activists are concerned, Moro says it's easier to block a celebrity than showing up week after week to your local protest or writing to your representative. 

She says we are looking for simple answers to complex issues. 

"It's always going to be a bit of a danger that in an economy of attention, celebrities' visibility is a form of competitive resource." 

They can come out with a 'hot take' which while an immediate response, is a response that trades in being viral, and in branding. 

"It doesn't really explore the complex answers and responses that we need for those complex issues."

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