In the past, a public figure actually had to do something of relevance or importance to be considered as such. This is no longer the case in the 21st century. A public figure now could be anyone from a YouTube makeup artist to a dog with more Instagram followers than most humans. While it seems that almost anyone competent enough to work a smartphone could do this, I still think that there is a defined, yet sometimes faded, the line between these “public figures” and regular folks like us.
Being a public figure means more than having a twitter account. It means having a following. To be a public figure it’s not enough for you to just think you’re special. Others have to think you’re special in order for them to actually care. On social media, there are things that set everyone apart, like what they post, follower count, and, most importantly, verification. Being verified means that the social media gods have found you worthy enough to have the little checkmark by your name. However, some see this as a rather arbitrary bestowal due to a number of questionable characters that have received it. This then begs the question “who even decides who is a public figure and who is not?”
While there are those that think going out in public makes them a public figure, that is simply not the case. The way I’ve mapped it out is that you have your top, A-list stars at the top of the totem pole, like Beyoncé, Leonardo DiCaprio, and those types. Next are the reality stars that, whether you like them or not, are very well known, like the Kardashian Klan. And at the bottom, but not to be left out are the social media and YouTube stars. Although very different groups, they all have something in common and that is that they have willingly put themselves out there in the spotlight at the risk of scrutiny. I am not saying that they deserve how they are treated but they have subjected themselves to it, distinguishing themselves from the non-public-figure majority. The media is a good indicator of who is and who isn’t a public figure. If someone cheats on their partner and not even TMZ reports on it, then I wouldn’t consider them a public figure. But they could take it to Maury and that might change things.
Although it is more of a subjective selection, there are certain criteria that need to be met before being deemed a public figure, and in today’s world, it’s even harder to decide what that criterion should be. And there really doesn’t seem to be a point in doing so because it will most likely change as time goes on, just like it has done. There may never be a definite answer, but hopefully individuals have enough common sense to know whether or not they’re a public figure.
Camry Bishop, a student in Jon Pfeiffer’s Fall 2017 Media Law class at Pepperdine University, wrote the above essay in response to the prompt:
As you’ve been reading cases this week, you may have noticed that the rules for defamation are different for private and public figures. That’s why tabloids can get away with saying crazy things about the Kardashians, even though we know they’re just a made-up family who is not actually biologically related. But the world is changing. More and more people are gaining recognition as influencers on social media. Brand companies are now targeting micro-influencers to push product as people tend to trust recommendations from their friends instead of people with huge followings. All of this is to say that it seems that what constitutes as a public figure today is not the same as what would constitute as a public figure 20 years ago. But obviously, not everyone with a twitter account is a public figure… or are they? Where do we draw a line? Define a public figure.