Politics & Culture

The Power of Celebrity Influence: From Rock the Vote to Social Media Activism

Once stars of the Rock the Vote and Vote or Die! campaigns, celebrities are now using their own social media platforms to speak out about voting in the U.S. presidential election.
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Paris Hilton in the 2004 "Vote or Die!" campaign.

Thirty years ago, the star-studded 1990 Rock the Vote campaign made celebrities like Madonna, Lenny Kravitz, and Sarah Jessica Parker the public face of voting. The U.S. presidential election initiative consisted of PSAs that called out the government for infringing on free speech in music—at the time, hip hop and rap lyrics were being censored—while asking people to vote. The RTV organization, created by music executive Jeff Ayeroff, sought to encourage participation from the 18-29 year old age demographic, the historically least active voting group, even today. Since the 1990s, pop singers and movie stars continue to remind fans to vote, and with the advent of social media, celebrities have made the message even more personalized.

Madonna's 1990 "Rock the Vote" PSA

In later election years, RTV partnered with MTV, widening its audience to more potential voters. Justin Timberlake, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kendall Jenner, and more have since joined the movement to get to the polls. Similarly, in 2004, Sean Combs partnered with Revolt TV to launch the Vote or Die! campaign, aimed at garnering excitement among young and minority voters. This year, Combs re-launched the initiative with the help of some of his famous friends, and RTV continues to campaign with celebrities like Billie Eillish making PSAs for the 2020 presidential election. Beyond these traditional ads, however, stars now how the power to go directly to their social media platforms to share information on voter registration, mail-in voting, and candidates within minutes.

Last month, Lizzo and Mandy Moore, among others, partnered with I Am A Voter for the #RunwaytothePolls campaign, prompting fans to share videos of themselves mailing their ballots or going to the polls, while also offering voting resources. The ability for rapid activism, uninhibited by TV network times or guidelines, allows a simpler transaction of information, as well as a space for more partisan messages.

In her 1990 PSA, Madonna dressed in an American flag—a controversial move at the time—and told viewers to “Come on and vote” to the tune of her hit song “Vogue.” For the current election season, however, the popstar posted Instagram videos directly criticizing the president, followed by “#bidenharris2020.” Beyoncé also shared a photo of herself yesterday in a Biden-Harris mask with the caption, "Come thru, Texas!"

Given the opportunity to influence the vote, celebrities have happily taken the job. Figures like Cher and Jane Fonda have been openly fighting for LGBTQ+ rights and peace movements, respecitively, since before the dawn of social media. Now, Fonda has leveraged her social media presence to advocate for social issues, from speaking out about the climate crisis to promoting voter registration. All around, political engagement among celebrities has increased this year, possibly at the behest of politically charged Gen-Z fans, and especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests this summer.

Jennifer Lawrence, an apolitical figure in years past, recently opened up on the Absolutely Not podcast about how the election of Donald Trump pushed her further left on the political spectrum, announcing that she is now a proud Democrat. Taylor Swift has also become increasingly vocal about politics since endorsing Tennessee Democrat Phil Bresden for Senate in 2018. This election season, she voiced her support for the Biden-Harris ticket in V magazine, and just last night posted an Election Day eve PSA reminding her followers to vote. However, other notable faces are receiving backlash for sharing their political leanings. Lawrence's Passengers co-star Chris Pratt was criticized for staying silent on his views, while also following former Breitbart News Editor-at-Large Ben Shapiro on social media.

With the arrival of Election Day, social media feeds teem with singers and models sharing their “I Voted” stickers and final pleas to vote one way or another. The country waits with baited breath tonight, and likely through the rest of the week, as ballots across the country trickle in to elect either incumbent President Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden as the Commander-in-Chief for the next four years. 

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