If we each have an audience online, imagine how many people Justin Bieber can reach. Prior to the web, news companies were often described as gatekeepers to mainstream awareness. Technology has drastically altered this landscape, with many more places and ways to be heard online. A new breed of gatekeeper to mass attention has emerged: the individual who amasses a large following on digital communication platforms. This includes web-native celebrities, like bloggers and YouTube stars, but also mainstream celebrities newly empowered to speak directly to their millions of fans without the help of the press. Celebrities on Twitter create an alluring combination for activists: they garner large amounts of attention but offer relatively lower barriers to access. But we should also keep in mind that celebrities and other so-called “online influential” are people, too, and there are ethics you should consider before bombarding someone on behalf of a campaign (see Ethan Zuckerman’s post, The Tweetbomb and the Ethics of Attention ).

In March, 2012, the producers of the aforementioned KONY video teased the film to supporters for weeks before launch, and then shepherded “a network of 5,000 teenage campaigners to bombard celebrities with demands for support” on Twitter and Facebook, reaching 100 million views in six days.

Organizers like Tim Newman at Change.org routinely target celebrities on Twitter to ask them to spread the word about various campaigns and petitions. This tactic was wildly successful in the case of the Trayvon Martin petition, when Newman elicited supportive tweets from Talib Kweli, Wyclef Jean, Spike Lee, Mia Farrow, and Chad Ochocinco, creating a 900% spike in social media traffic to the petition in one day. Later that week, supportive tweets were successfully solicited from John Legend, Cher, and MC Hammer, the latter of whom had 2.6 million followers at the time.

The original Rolling Jubilee campaign page (an extension of the Occupy movement) explicitly asked users to target celebrities like Oprah, Bruce Springsteen, and Louis C.K. with their tweets. This feature was later removed.

Figure 3.10: RollingJubilee.org encouraged users to tweet at various celebrities about the campaign