On his annual visit to the US for St. Patrick’s Day, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, along with his partner, Dr Matthew Barrett, visited the home of Vice President Mike Pence. This left a bad taste in the mouths of many, as VP Pence has made a political career out of opposing LGBT rights. As governor of Indiana, Pence signed a “religious freedom” bill, which many critics noted was worded in a way to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people. Pence has publicly advocated for more supports to be given to conversion therapy in the US. The question stands: why would an openly gay Taoiseach accept an invitation to the home of a known homophobe?
While the Taoiseach told Pence that he will be judged on his actions and not sexual orientation or skin tone, many saw this as a missed opportunity to highlight the discriminatory politics ripe within the White House. What’s more, as the Taoiseach was on a state visit representing the Irish population, by accepting the invitation, Varadkar as a gay man took the passive approach of playing the polite house guest to a man who would actively take his human rights away, just to save face in diplomatic relations.
There is no “right way to be gay”, but as Taoiseach, Varadkar is in a position that puts him in rooms with other people that could potentially send a message to both Irish and American citizens (and more cyncially, voters) that change is a possibility and experiences can get better. This past St. Patrick’s Day, however, was just an example of an ineffective misuse of influence by those who possess it.
It isn’t just elected officials who have a responsibility to use their influence effectively. In social media circles, pop culture personalities arguably gather more following in terms of sheer numbers and from across various different demographics.
In the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attacks, Youtuber Felix Kjellberg, commonly known as PewDiePie, has received massive criticism over content produced on his channel. While not directly linked to the mass shooting news reports claimed that the terrorist shouted “remember lads, subscribe to PewDiePie” before opening fire on the muslims gathered in the mosque for prayers. No stranger to controversy, PewDiePie was recently found to have paid freelancers to hold signs with anti-semetic messages for a video on his channel. Given that of 89 million subscribers, a large proportion are young, white and male, PewDiePie has made a following by using racist and problematic comments under the guise of “humour” on his channel. This humour has been copied and reused by fans try to emulate the Youtuber, and in the case of the Christchuch attack, been referenced in the manifesto published by the terrorist.
Even though Kjellberg denounced the acts of the terrorist, and rejected and association between the two, the fact remains that he was a source of inspiration in this incident. Kjellberg, while probably trying to appeal to as large a demographic as possible, to maximise his ad revenue from Youtube, may not have thought his comments would be used in such a way, has still played a part in creating a culture where young men can spread extreme white nationalist views on the internet. The events of Christchurch are an example of the extreme reactions people can have, when told by and influenced by people they look to on a daily basis, that holding these views of supremacy and seeing immigrants as “invaders” are just for the “lulz”.
While the focus can easily fall on those who abuse or misuse their influence, there are some who use their platform in the public eye to highlight issues in society that need to be addressed. Jameela Jamil, former T4 presenter turned actor, uses her social media following to call for action on subjects such as the #MeToo movement, body image and the patriarchy. While some have called her guilty of a “holier than thou” tone online, she has used her platform to publicly call out media publications that use applications to alter their models’ appearance. Whether you think she can come across as condescending or vehemently take her word as gospel, Jamil has been consistent in her approach to these issues, taking action against those who troll her online, and discussing her views with other celebrities to reach more people. Recently, she interviewed the musician Sam Smith on Smith’s issues with their body image and the internalised fatphobia that many people face. It is clear that Jamil’s approach to social issues, while not everyone’s cup of tea, understands the influence she holds from her career which places her in the public eye.
Influence is not only held by elected politicians, with the rise of the internet age, anyone can amass a following of like-minded individuals from around the world. As sites such as Youtube, Tumblr and Reddit find it increasingly difficult to police groups who spout hatred and violent rhetoric, the onus falls on those who have the ear of the many, to be an example.