Celebrities, experts, and convincing on social networks (Part 1)

Trying to convince strangers on the web seems futile, whether you are a celebrity or an expert. Worse, it reinforces the beliefs of your interlocutors and they will turn away from you.

Tom Hanks, Kim Kardashian or Dr. Fauci?

Trying to convince strangers on the web seems futile, whether you are a celebrity or an expert. Worse, it reinforces the beliefs of your interlocutors and they will turn away from you. You can access part 2 of this series here.

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The presence of celebrities seems to be a good idea when it comes to raising awareness for a cause. In recent years we have seen the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, constantly warning us about climate change. On his Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts, the narrator and producer of the 2016 “Before the Flood” documentary presents himself as an "actor and environmentalist". The same goes for Beyoncé: posts on Instagram show how her female empowerment messages have been acknowledged and disseminated by thousands of internet users.

But the Internet is not an epicentre of rationality. Rather, the different networks taking part in the digital world seem destined to eventually turn any subject into inflammatory and divisive exchanges. In the cybernetic chaos of opinions, can an icon and their message reach across the divides? In order to promote social distancing or vaccination, is it better to use celebrities or the voice of experts? Two studies shed light on the subject.

In a first study1 (survey carried out at the end of 2019 with a panel of 379 participants), researchers wanted to know whether people could change their opinion on subjects such as immigration, vaccination, climate change and abortion after hearing messages from famous "spokespersons" which included Tom Hanks, Eminem, Ariana Grande, or Julia Roberts. 

Participants' prior opinions were first ranked on a scale between two extremes. For vaccination, they ranged from "Vaccines are harmless and save lives" to "Many vaccines have severe side effects and can cause serious illness". Participants then heard:

Finally, the researchers assessed:

Celebrities ignored, experts rejected 

The study results were clear. When a celebrity supports an opinion contrary to our own, whether we like the celebrity or not, our initial opinion is not altered at all. On the other hand, if we don't like a celebrity, but in this case they share our opinion, this causes us to reinforce further our opinion on the topic.

As for the experts, their ability to influence people seemed illusory. One might expect the situation to be different when it comes to opinions based on scientific facts. But in this study, when an unknown expert held a dissenting opinion, the effect on respondents was even worse than when the statement was that of an unappreciated celebrity.

A dissenting opinion of a celebrity, whether you like it or not, has no effect. But, more worryingly, the study finds, we vigorously reject the opinion of an expert who thinks differently from us... by further entrenching ourselves in our own belief. This is logical, since we are constantly seeking validation of our opinions. The expert, being a well-informed person on the subject, is perceived as a threat. 

I like my opinion much more than you do

Finally, if neither celebrities nor experts can convince, they are all at risk of being rejected. When they express an idea that differs from ours, this study shows that our empathy towards them decreases. We 'punish' them for thinking differently from us. 

What does this mean? According to the results, trying to convince strangers on the web seems futile, whether you are a star or an expert. Worse, it reinforces the beliefs of your interlocutors and they will turn away from you.

Conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, the study was nevertheless optimistic. At the time, the authors believed that in the presence of a common enemy, the tendency towards "tribalism" would fade, leaving more room for expertise. The pandemic provided them with a real-world opportunity to test this hypothesis.

1. Andreas Spitz, Ahmad Abu-Akel, Robert West. Interventions for Softening Can Lead to Hardening of Opinions: Evidence from a Randomized Controlled Trial.

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