What Happens When Politics and Parasocial Relationships Clash?

“Meryl Streep, one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” tweeted then-president-elect, Donald Trump in response to the actor’s attack on him in her 2017 Golden Globes award speech. Celebrities’ engagement in politics has been around for nearly a century, as entertainers began to leverage their celebrity status to promote their political agenda among their fan base.

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Some studies estimate that Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement of Barack Obama brought him a million votes. Similarly, Taylor Swift’s call for political participation has galvanized young voters. Numerous celebrities, from Emma Watson to Lady Gaga, advocate to support specific causes, such as LGBTQ rights and peace efforts.

The persuasive impact these celebrities can have on their fans is not surprising. Media users often form strong emotional bonds with celebrities (dubbed “parasocial relationships”). The audiences see their favorite media personality as a kind of super-peer—a role model, a source of inspiration.

Parasocial relationships lay the foundations for trust and lower the audiences’ natural resistance to persuasive attempts. These effects are well documented in many contexts, from marketing (when a celebrity serves as spokesperson) to health (e.g., the Angelina Jolie Effect—when Jolie’s New York Times op-ed calling for testing for BARCA gene mutation sparked massive public interest in the topic).

However, many of those effects are related to topics that the public is largely in agreement on. Taking a stance on ending hunger in Africa, stopping human trafficking, or preventing cancer is not particularly divisive, even if some people feel more strongly about some of these issues than others.

Conversely, where we stand on some of the more controversial political issues (i.e. abortion, immigration) tend to be intertwined more closely with individuals’ core values and moral identity. Thus, disagreement on these issues may cast one’s political opponents as misguided, morally corrupt, or even evil.

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Not surprisingly, then, many celebrities shy away from publicly commenting on such divisive issues, for fear of alienating some of their fans. Yet some celebrities do speak out. What happens when a celebrity voices their political opinions in a way that is directly incongruent with a fan’s core values? How do media users resolve the cognitive dissonance between liking a celebrity and disliking their politics?

Ironically, Trump himself provides an interesting case study that speaks to this question. Research found that the parasocial relationships that the public formed with Trump in his celebrity role contributed to his popularity in the political arena.

Specifically, the more intense were viewers’ parasocial relationships with Trump on his reality show, the more forgiving they were of his most controversial statements. This was especially true for Trump’s political opponents: Former Obama voters dismissed Trump’s controversial statements to the extent they related to his persona on the reality show.

But does that mean that media consumers will always ditch their hardcore political views and blindly follow the celebrity? Changing one’s political stance is just one solution to the cognitive dissonance that arises when someone’s love for a celebrity clashes with their political stance. Breaking up with a parasocial “friend” can be a painful emotional experience that people may prefer to avoid. Thus, individuals can use other strategies to resolve the internal conflict—by, for instance, dismissing the importance of the topic altogether.

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In one of my own studies, college students saw fictitious tweets allegedly posted by their favorite actors. The tweets (about immigration and gun control/rights) were always matched to be either consistent with or opposite to the study participant’s stance on the issue.

After seeing a beloved celebrity (supposedly) making this statement, the students were more likely to say that the issue was not that important to them. Minimizing the importance of the issue may make it easier for the fans to disagree with the celebrity and continue liking them.

Only when the political issue is of great importance—and the initial levels of the parasocial relationship are low—is it easy for the media users to “break up” with the celebrity. Some will still be able to separate the art from the artist, while others attempt to focus solely on the entertainment value of the celebrity while ignoring them as a person—or as Fox News’s anchor Laura Ingraham said in response to LeBron James’s political commentary: “Shut up and dribble.”

References

Gabriel, S., Paravati, E., Green, M. C., & Flomsbee, J. (2018). From apprentice to president: The role of parasocial connection in the election of Donald Trump. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 9(3), 299-307.

Kosenko, K. A., Binder, A. R., & Hurley, R. (2016). Celebrity influence and identification: A test of the Angelina effect. Journal of Health Communication, 21(3), 318-326.

Nisbett, G., & Schartel Dunn, S. (2021). Reputation matters: Parasocial attachment, narrative engagement, and the 2018 Taylor Swift political endorsement. Atlantic Journal of Communication, 29(1), 26-38.

Pease, A., & Brewer, P. R. (2008). The Oprah factor: The effects of a celebrity endorsement in a presidential primary campaign. The international Journal of Press/politics, 13(4), 386-400.

Tukachinsky Forster, R. R., & Downey, S. E. (2023). Losing parasocial friendships over celebrity politics: A cognitive discrepancies approach. Psychology of Popular Media, 12(2), 125.

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