What we use to characterize a public figure has evolved drastically with the birth of the internet into the public domain. With the internet and the different social media platforms that people use to speak their mind, it has become much easier for a singular voice to become recognized by the public. With this recognition comes power, and a person who has never done anything to garner actual fame may gain notoriety just by the content they share and the followers they gain.
What defined a public figure before social media entered the conversation? At its most basic yet overarching definition, a public figure can be someone who is a politician, celebrity, or business leader. An alternate definition is that public figures are those that have thrust themselves to the forefront of a particular public controversy to influence the resolution of the issues involved. But these vague definitions hardly narrow down the exact qualifications of a public figure. And perhaps that’s just how it’ll be from now on. The dimensions of fame have expanded to include those who “are famous for doing nothing” just by the content they post and the followers they attract. There are thousands of helpful tips and online articles on how you can become famous through social media and how to become “verified” on the different social media platforms. This seems to imply that fame isn’t quite as selective anymore and that there are many paths available for those seeking any level of fame to warrant the title of a “public figure.”
It has become easier to become a public figure because the number of followers seems to be directly correlated to a person’s potential reach. Fame itself includes more levels than ever before, and the world of public figures grows exponentially each day with the growth of social media. While it has become much more complicated to define a public figure, it’s important to recognize that the rapid digital advances in this day and age also mean that we are held increasingly more responsible for what we post online. Fame and notoriety seem even more fleeting, achievable, and superficial as ever but words will always continue to have power. With the ability for things to go viral now, and the overload of information we face each day, defining a public figure isn’t so important as acting responsibly as one.
Mina Kim, 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.