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On social media, activists used the Met Gala to call out stars for Gaza silence

Zendaya at the 2024 Met Gala in New York City. The actress is one of many celebrities whose name has appeared this week on social media "block" lists for not speaking out publicly about the conflict in Gaza.
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
Zendaya at the 2024 Met Gala in New York City. The actress is one of many celebrities whose name has appeared this week on social media "block" lists for not speaking out publicly about the conflict in Gaza.

Updated May 15, 2024 at 11:03 AM ET

A collective effort on TikTok and other social media platforms to push celebrities to speak publicly about the conflict in Gaza went into overdrive this week after The Met Gala.

Creators on TikTok have earned millions of views for videos they've made linked to hashtags like #celebrityblocklist, #letthemeatcake and #blockout.

Many of these posts list the names of actors, musicians and other high-profile figures whom the video creators say had not yet spoken out against Israel's attacks on the region — or hadn't spoken out sufficiently in the creators' view — and therefore should be blocked.

And there's been a special push in recent days to name those who attended the opulent, star-studded annual Met Gala on Monday.

"I made a Google Doc of every celebrity that attended the Met Gala, and now I'm going through and writing if they've been silent, or if they've been using their platform to speak up about the genocide in Gaza," said TikTok user silentcelebs8 in a video displaying a long list of celebrity names against a black background with the word "SILENT" in red next to to some, including Zendaya, Nicki Minaj, Keith Urban and Andrew Scott. "Some of these celebrities have not been completely silent," the Tiktoker continued. "Zendaya did make a post back in October on her story supporting Palestine, but has been silent since. So I went ahead and put 'silent.'" (Genocide is a legal term; Israel has not been found to be in violation of the Genocide convention and Israel strongly denies the accusation.)

The Met Gala fans the flames

Calls on social media to boycott celebrity silences have been on a slow burn for months.

But the fact the New York event, with its unchecked display of privilege and wealth, took place at around the same time as thousands of Palestinians were being forced to flee Rafah at less than 24 hours notice as Israeli troops took control of the Gaza territory's border crossing with Egypt, fanned the glowing embers into full-on flames.

"The Met Gala was a bit of a hyperbolic moment that got a lot of people's attention," said Marcus Collins, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Michigan. "The celebrity boycotts had existed, but they weren't really at the top of the social zeitgeist. But then you have a moment like the Met Gala that wasn't really related to the conflict, but the pieces were all at play. When the attacks [in Gaza] were happening the same day, the juxtaposition just got people talking and moving."

Even relatively minor celebrities like social media influencer Hayley Baylee — who wasn't even a guest at the event, but had been hired as a pre-gala host to interview those invited as they headed to the party — were caught up in the backlash on TikTok.

Many creators posted negative reactions to a video Baylee posted of herself that night (which has since been taken down), saying, "Let them eat cake!" It was a nod, as she later admitted in a video apologizing for her actions, to a current trend on social media for looks inspired by Marie Antoinette, and a line from the 2006 film starring Kirsten Dunst, about the ill-fated French queen.

"The world is just not peaceful or stable enough for the average person to accept and enjoy celebrities flaunting their wealth on social media," said user Christopher Claflin on TikTok in response both to Baylee's faux-pas and the overall flaunting of wealth in New York that night. "Flexing on the peasants only works when the peasants aren't watching other peasants be wiped off the face of the planet."

The impact of blocking celebrities on the people of Gaza

The rationale behind the calls on social media to block celebrities, thereby negatively impacting their advertising revenue, is to put pressure on them to use their massive influence to try to stop the violence in Gaza.

@christopherclaflinShould celebs bother with addressing social issues?Or should they stay in their lane?##metgala##metgala2024##letthemeatcake♬ Let Them Eat Cake-vibeyvidz

"The hope is that it will either bring more visibility to the cause and shift the balance in getting political forces like the U.S. government to do something to mitigate the violence that's happening in the Middle East," said Collins. "But as rational as that logic may seem, I don't think there are very many examples where this has actually worked."

Collins cited the example of George Clooney's efforts, albeit in an era before the rise of social media, to end the war in Sudan. A 2014 article in The Guardian by the Sudan-based journalist Maeve Shearlaw assessed the impact of the celebrity's dedicated efforts over the years to bring about change: "I don't see that it has halted, or even reduced, the genocide. The killing, displacement, sexual assaults and rape never stopped."

On the other hand, pressure on social media has occasionally impacted the ways celebrities speak out about world events. For example, the backlash against Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson for asking the public to donate to a Maui wildfire recovery fund last fall caused the pair to put more of their own significant resources into the effort. However, the amount they contributed was not disclosed.

The impact on everyone else

This latest social media campaign may be intended to help people in Gaza, but some experts say it doesn't directly target the issue; rather, it focuses attention on celebrities, and obscures the desired goal.

"That's not what we're debating on and trending about and talking about and arguing about," said Chris Morse, a communications professor at Bryant University. "It's the fact that Celebrity A won't tell us their stance. Isn't that weird that they won't do that? Let's boycott them until they do do that."

Indeed — while the number of blocks to an account is not visible — some stars have seen a fall-off in followers over the past week. For example, Taylor Swift, who's at the top of many of the block lists, lost around 300,000 followers on TikTok over the past week, according to a comparison between her TikTok follower number at the time of writing and the number obtained from last week via Wayback Machine, and around 50,000 on Instagram. But that's nothing for a star of Swift's magnitude.

"A large celebrity has their touring, has multiple large social channels, is featured on television, is featured in the press," said Eric Dahan, CEO of the social media marketing company Mighty Joy. "If you have north of 100 million followers and you lose three or five million, it sucks. But is that the end of the world for you? No."

Dahan added that blocking celebrities doesn't prevent them from appearing in targeted social media ad campaigns.

"Blocking an account doesn't prevent you from receiving an ad, because the ad is not run through the celebrity's account per se," said Dahan. "And so, for example, you can block Kim Kardashian, but Hulu could run an ad targeting the Kardashians at you."

Meanwhile, controversies involving celebrities very often bring attention to social media platforms.

"TikTok definitely benefits, right? Because the trend is happening on their format," said Bryant University's Morse. "We are constantly mentioning TikTok in all of the stories, and that makes people curious in order to see the trend and see what people are doing. So you got to go to TikTok, and you really got to become a member because you can't really see too many things without actually engaging with the platform."

TikTok did not immediately respond to NPR's request for comment.

And even if the many, much-viewed videos aimed at canceling celebrities don't help to bring about a change for the people of Gaza, there's at least an emotional reward for those doing the canceling.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.