Pandemic Politics: How celebrities are bringing about more change than politicians through social media

Featured image courtesy of dole777 via Unsplash.

The multiple national lockdowns that the UK has faced have brought about many challenges. With the pandemic exposing every Government inconsistency in, all-to-often flawed, emergency plans, celebrities and influencers have taken it upon themselves to launch ambitious and well-organised pressure campaigns, aimed directly at Number Ten.

Celebrities such as Marcus Rashford MBE and Dr Alex George have, if they weren’t already, become household names due to their inspiring and important political campaigns. The star football player and the A&E Doctor who rose to fame as a relatable Love Island contestant, have taken their personal experiences and hardships into real policy change.  Their noticeable down-to-earth natures have made these campaigns particularly admirable in the ongoing atmosphere of struggle many are facing. As well as this, never before have we experienced such a direct relationship between politicians and celebrities in bringing about positive change for ordinary people.

What we now face is the reality that celebrities merely existing as an individual ‘within the public eye’ is no longer satisfactory; they must do something positive with their fame to earn respect.

Amidst what has turned out to be somewhat of a reckoning on out of touch influencer culture - with many illegally jetting off to Dubai during lockdown-  these celebrities are being heralded as ‘real influencers’; people who influence tangible change. There is nothing ordinary about their millions of Instagram followers, but there is everything just as ordinary about their characters, which is arguably why they have had so much success. What they have done, probably unknowingly, is stretch the boundaries of not just celebrity culture but of the inner workings of British politics. What we now face is the reality that celebrities merely existing as an individual ‘within the public eye’ is no longer satisfactory; they must do something positive with their fame to earn respect.

Rashford’s campaign for Free School Meals during lockdown and school holidays launched with an open letter to Members of Parliament posted to his 9.8 million Instagram followers in June 2020. In the letter, Rashford says “Wembley stadium could be filled more than twice with children who have had to skip meals during lockdown due to their families not being able to access food.” The post garnered over 500,000 likes and propelled Rashford into stardom beyond his footballer horizons. By October, a petition set up by Rashford for new Free School Meals provisions had gained over one million signatures.

Despite all of this raised awareness, a vote in Parliament on the issue set up by the Labour Party lost. It was not until Rashford criticised this outcome that change came about, in the form of a personal phone call from Boris Johnson himself. The Prime Minister promised £170 million for vulnerable families over the winter period and a further £220 million on food and activities spending for children over the holidays.

Dr Alex George’s campaign had similarly positive outcomes. Following the passing of his younger brother from suicide in July 2020, George’s focus on mental health awareness gradually became a direct social media campaign to reach the Prime Minister. His campaign, which consisted of the catchphrase “Boris, let’s talk” and the hashtag #MentalHealthMatters, was, like Rashford’s, launched on his social media platforms. His wishes were granted, and in February 2021 he was announced as the new ‘Youth Mental Health Ambassador’ for the Government. The role will involve George helping to shape policy concerning young people’s mental health. The following month, George celebrated the Government’s plan to dedicate £79 million on mental health projects.

The ability to place an issue onto the Government’s agenda through a simple ‘like’ or ‘retweet’ actually emphasises (for once) a positive impact which social media can have.

With the various social media posts, viral hashtags, and personal conversations with the PM, it may seem that the government is listening to the public now, more than ever before. Although the role of celebrities in politics is not a brand new phenomenon, the direct contact enabled by Johnson shows a new, modernised approach to politics which reaches outside the confines of Westminster. The ability to place an issue onto the Government’s agenda through a simple ‘like’ or ‘retweet’ actually emphasises (for once) a positive impact which social media can have.

But with this, comes questions over the role of the Opposition, whose job it is to hold the Government accountable over issues raised by the likes of Rashford and George. If celebrity campaigns have only just placed these issues on the Government’s agenda, what does it say about the role of the politicians supposefly holding them to account?

This discussion stood out on social media following the success of Rashford’s campaign. One poll revealed that the public recorded the highest levels of confidence in Rashford holding the Government to account (56%), followed by Piers Morgan (32%) and ‘General TV and Journalists’ (31%). Rashford actually had higher confidence levels in holding the Government to account than Opposition Leader Sir Keir Starmer and the category of Members of Parliament combined.

This paints a damning picture for the politicians in question. Not only is it frustrating that the Government is having to be told that something is an issue, but it is equally frustrating that the opposition parties, whose job it is to raise these issues, are lagging behind.

Yet, it should be important to recognise that Rashford and George’s celebrity platforms definitely work in their favour. The Opposition in Westminster must always criticise the decisions of the Government, providing an alternative viewpoint, and this gets tiring to constantly keep up with. Perhaps the effect of this alternative viewpoint continues to be watered down the more the Opposition criticise, rendering their concerns pretty meaningless in the eyes of the Government. Celebrities, on the other hand, will be granted special status when speaking up about issues they care about, as such practice isn’t commonplace. As well as this, they are clearly discussing something that concerns large groups of wider society, and so it is in the Government’s interests to respond to them over responding to the inevitable criticism that takes place daily in Parliament.

Pessimists would argue that the Government’s engagement with various celebrity campaigns is more about style over substance. And, if the first year of Johnson’s premiership has told us anything, it’s that he certainly cares about his political image.

Looking at this as part of a wider trend, we can see how politics is no longer confined within the strict walls of Westminster. It is positive that the Government is enabling this change as it facilitates greater contact between the people and Government. With the beneficial aspects of social media in raising awareness as clear as ever, the public understands how they can make a change other than through the ballot box every five years.

But, this change should be treated with caution. Pessimists would argue that the Government’s engagement with various celebrity campaigns is more about style over substance. And, if the first year of Johnson’s premiership has told us anything, it’s that he certainly cares about his political image. For celebrities to feel they need to speak up on issues that may have otherwise gone unnoticed shows the continued lack of understanding that the Government has about wider society. As Rashford said in his response to the Commons voting against his Free School Meals plan, "Have any of the people in Government speaking about this had a life where they can literally not afford to buy food and pay bills…they don’t have a big enough understanding on the issue.” With a brighter future looming, as promised by the success of the vaccine roll out, this cannot go unmissed; the Government is listening, but still not listening enough.