It’s harder than ever before to define what constitutes as a public figure. Today, there are as many species of public figures as there are butterflies in the Amazon Rainforest. With the advancement of social media it’s nearly impossible to create a specific, inclusive, and applicable definition of what constitutes as a public figure. There are countless public figures on social media alone due to the legions of followers they have. “Official profiles” are not just reserved for movie stars and models anymore.
Indeed, there are food bloggers that have a bigger presence than musicians and athletes. This enigmatic universe of digital publicity is where the rubber meets the road; where the average, every-day college student moonlights as a travel expert/reporter. Influencers on Youtube, Instagram, Twitter etc. often share intimate details of their life: what they cook, where they shop, who they’re married to, which side of the political fence they stand on and so on and so forth. If someone were to ostracize or criticize them, the odds are that their following/fans would protect and resurrect their reputation, similar to a celebrity. When you think about it, these public figures are constantly developing their own narrative and establishing their reputation, maintaining control over how they are perceived, in a way us layman can’t. As a result, their fans/followers who feel attached and invincible on social media will take on the world if something negative is said about their favorite blogger, vlogger, hiker/hat maker-influencer etc. Followers function as a fortress willing to ambush the judgments of “hearsayers.”
Ultimately, it’s much more difficult to injure the reputation and livelihood of a public figure than a private individual, because stardom, status, and fame lend an expedited route to recovery.
The mainstream public is familiar with the lives of those that live in the spotlight, they know the facts and if something scandalous is written about a celebrity/public figure, journalists will fight tooth and nail to uncover the truth first, without the public figure having to spend so much as a dime. Moreover, the celebrity has a platform (multiple) to defend themselves, where private individuals do not until they enter the courtroom. Public figures never hesitate to enjoy their privileges, but when their reputation is manhandled they often want to trade them for the (legal) privileges afforded to the private, obscure, and “defenseless” citizen. So, will judges and attorneys have to start considering the number of social media followers? The attention gained from online sponsorships? Is a blogger who models bikinis in Hawaii, but has a following of 100K now a public figure? I think ultimately it depends on the damage to the defamation and/or libel. Can the individual in question, who tows the line between private and public citizen, recover? Or is the libel substantial enough to ambush the online following and unjustly threaten the influencer’s ability to remain credible, creative, and influential? I think the Supreme Court has its work cut out for it.
Addy Rogers, 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.