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Can Celebrities On Twitter Use Their Fame for Good?

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, June 22 2012

Actor Josh Charles has often tweeted about his support for high-speed rail and gay marriage rights. Actress Eva Longoria recently tweeted her support for President Obama's new illegal immigration policy. In the future, could such celebrity endorsements all become much more coordinated, mirroring the Kony 2012 effect?

That's what singer and songwriter Smokey Robinson is betting on. Yesterday he announced a new initiative to harness Twitter as a tool for celebrities to raise awareness and help promote good causes. One close observer of online activism says this kind of online buzz is nothing but a "silly idea."

Called Smoke Alarm, the idea is that when a call for help goes out, it will be echoed online by celebrities like Robinson and his friends, then retweeted by their millions of followers, CNN reports. Robinson is partnering with a new effort called Cause Swarm, co-created by David Clark, who has previously spearheaded HIV/AIDS and human rights initiatives for President Nelson Mandela.

Clark told CNN that the "alarm" would be sent out not more than three times a year for "shovel ready" projects. Robinson has already enlisted James Franco, Eva Longoria, Hilary Duff, Elton John, Daryl Hall and Brandy Norwood to participate, according to the report. Robinson says this new project could be much more effective than telethons or charity concerts.

"In this digital age we have the tools to level the playing field for those in need, so I'm calling on my friends and fans to lend their voices to mine, so we can collectively give voice to those who have none," Robinson said, according to CNN. Because hundreds of millions of people around the world will quickly see the call for donations, "all you've got to do is use Twitter and get people in who are their fans," he said. Celebrities will also post alerts on their Facebook page. Robinson told CNN the first alert would likely be aimed at raising money for for clean water to needy communities.

It's just unclear how much value to place on celebrity attention.

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, worried that the focus on social networks could "devalue the currency" of attention in a situation where the focus shifts from one issue to another from one day to the next.

"They're not doing much more than tweeting," he said. "Attention by itself is not a particularly helpful commodity."

There's an obvious counter-argument in the Kony 2012 campaign, which prominently featured celebrity tweets as part of an attention-getting strategy that focused international attention on the whereabouts of an accused mass murderer and serial child abductor already on the lam. Zuckerman suggests that a key factor in the campaign's success wasn't just Justin Bieber tweeting out messages about it, but that there was a group of people very invested in the organization running the campaign, Invisible Children, and promoting Invisible Children's agenda. Kony 2012 was meant to be the capstone of years of advocacy work — work that had always been received with mixed reviews. At Personal Democracy Forum 2012, Gilad Lotan explained that even the storm of Twitter posts around Kony 2012 were focused in a few geographically concentrated places — evidence of grassroots organizing — rather than around celebrity intervention.

All of this, says Zuckerman, who was also a co-founder of the international citizen journalism network Global Voices, makes Smoke Alarm less than impressive.

"I think it's a pretty silly idea," Zuckerman said of Smoke Alarm. "I don't expect to see it gain a lot of traction. It's an odd way of thinking about it — this notion that if we just had more attention, we would solve [world problems.]"

"It offers people something so that they can feel good about their action, and then you're absolved of your guilt [as a person]," he said later on in our conversation. Those messages are often of the "Hey, look at this funny video" or "doesn't that make you angry" variety, he said, which promote the low-cost engagement of liking and uploading.

While the Kony 2012 campaign sucked up media oxygen, there was major famine and massive displacement in the Horn of Africa, not far from Uganda.

"That's been an undercovered, massively underfunded situation, but there was no sudden interest in Somalia or Ethiopia," Zuckerman said. "It's not clear that we can scale [attention] if everyone is fighting for attention in the same way."

While it is positive for celebrities to use their prominence to raise awareness, Zuckerman asked, do we want them setting the agenda?

"I'm not sure the causes that Smokey Robinson wants to pay attention to are [always] the ones we should be paying attention to," he said.

Following a celebrity-backed cause is probably not the most optimal way to solve problems, he said. But there's an upshot.

"It's probably better than paying attention to Kim Kardashian," he said.