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Hitting Rock Bottom: The Radicalising Potential of Celebrity Culture 

Hitting Rock Bottom: The Radicalising Potential of Celebrity Culture 
16th November 2022 Jordan Chapman
In Insights

In less than a month, Kanye West went from being one of the world’s most famous musicians and designers to a figure rebuked by society. While the escalating torrent of hate across his social media may seem like an isolated incident, it is arguably the culmination of a dangerous pattern of high-profile individuals propagating white supremacist narratives. West’s friendship with Donald Trump, his “White Lives Matter” t-shirt stunt, and his purchase of the far-right ‘free speech’ app, Parler bear witness to his affinity with far-right rhetoric. Yet, his celebrity status and resultant credibility appear to render him untouchable. 

Not long after he stated, “I can say antisemitic things, and Adidas can’t drop me,” Balenciaga, Gap, and Adidas terminated his contracts, and he was removed from all major social media platforms. While deplatforming West may have harmed his reputation, he remains revered by many, who are likely to follow him into whatever extreme online rabbit hole he carves out on alternative tech platforms. This Insight seeks to understand more about how the grievances celebrities tap into can create a path for radicalisation, taking people from music to extremism. 

The Deification of Yeezus 

As an artist, Kanye West is widely acclaimed for his talent. In part due to the praise received, he crafted a persona, ‘Yeezus’, and later declared himself “the new Moses”– a PR move championed by his fans. As West’s celebrity status grew, he began to align himself more with Christian nationalist and white supremacist thinking. It is important to note that those who espouse white supremacist notions do not have to be white; whiteness is power, and celebrities of colour are afforded proximity to whiteness, and therefore power. Unfortunately, this power can corrupt – the path of people like Kanye West highlights dangerous patterns of what happens when ego goes unchecked.

For example, West asserted that Black people weren’t doing enough to get out of poverty, and claimed to be a free-thinker who uses his platform to push the bounds of “respectability politics” by saying Jewish people will “black ball” anyone who “opposes” their “agenda”. In a now-deleted tweet, he claimed he wanted to “go death con 3 ON JEWISH PEOPLE,” signalling to his millions of followers the acceptability of violence against Jewish people. In doing so, far-right sympathisers also saw themselves and their views represented in West. 

West’s antisemitism is rooted in the Black Hebrew Israelites sect, which is not tied to Judaism, nor representative of Black Jews. It instead sees people of colour as the ‘True Jews’, or the descendants of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Through this ideology, antisemitism is rampant because it paints Judaism as a false religion and white Jewish people as not true believers. At the same time, this ideology also perpetuates anti-Blackness by claiming that slavery, racism, and mass incarceration are ‘divine punishments’ for Black people. Within this sect, antisemitism and anti-Blackness are intertwined. This is partly why West and others who follow the ideology believe slavery was a choice and also why he has been known to perpetuate both anti-Black and antisemitic views.

As Abbie Richards’ Conspiracy Chart shows, West is well past the “antisemitic point of no return”. West is unlikely to stop using his platform to push hateful rhetoric and conspiracy theories, and just like communities of video gamers, fan communities create a milieu for radicalisation by sharing and perpetuating this hatred. The issue therefore remains that his massive platform provides a dangerous opportunity to radicalise people, especially young black men who see him as a role model. 

The Mainstreaming of Hate Online 

Conspiracy theories like the Great Replacement or the New World Order have been normalised through soundbites or shifts in language, making them more ‘acceptable’ to the general public, and West is not the first to mainstream these white supremacist ideas. Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight, continually provides a platform for both the host and his guests to promote conspiracies, reaching over three million people per month. Others like Candace Owens, use less mainstream but still widely popular platforms like Daily Wire to promote white supremacist concepts similarly, reaching nearly 900k subscribers through her daily show. 

With a generation of young men who feel lonelier than ever, the search for role models and scapegoats is constant. Celebrities like West provide answers and validation to their feelings of loneliness or victimisation and are able to shape the minds and opinions of impressionable young people with legitimate grievances who are spending more and more time online. West’s self-made, ‘rags to riches’ story has hailed him a hero by swathes of devoted fans who listen as he blames marginalised groups for their hardships. Radicalisation through celebrity culture comes down to trust, and in moments of instability, celebrities provide a beacon to follow. 

White supremacy feeds off attention, and the past month’s events have created a firestorm for radicalisation into more extreme right-wing views. Celebrities mainstream and provide a level of visibility to hateful ideas that go far beyond day-to-day occurrences. At the same time, West’s espousal of white supremacist rhetoric may also lead algorithmic recommendation systems to funnel people from his music to misinformation, conspiracy theories or hateful content. Without the digital literacy necessary to understand how these narratives are false and harmful, this rhetoric seems like the long-awaited answer to their grievances.  

What’s Next?

West’s use of hate speech may get him removed from mainstream platforms, but as he is pushed off those platforms, he will take his supporters with him to more extreme sites like Parler or Truth Social that provide unfettered access to extremist content. Equally, with West’s purchase of Parler, the site is bound to see an influx of extremist activity and attention. 

The mainstreaming of hate speech has emboldened a generation of far-right activists on college campuses, highways, and political stages. For the majority, the repercussions are limited. In only the last couple of weeks, French politicians have espoused racial hatred in parliament, Tucker Carlson has once again given a platform to the Great Replacement theory, and Elon Musk has used his purchase of Twitter to limit content moderation, even sharing conspiracy theories himself. 

Deplatforming a celebrity with a following as big as West’s is a significant challenge. Just as with Andrew Tate, it is rarely possible to truly deplatform anyone, especially a celebrity. In the case of Tate, his content still lives on fringe platforms and is often reposted on mainstream sites, linking their followers to more radicalised pathways as they follow them off traditional platforms. At the same time, the teaching and reaction to celebrities like West cannot be isolated, and the same ferocity must be applied to figures like Tucker Carlson who espouse the same dangerous rhetoric. In times where online hatred seems to come from all sides, it is more important than ever to disrupt this hateful rhetoric and the different mechanisms used to share hate, both online and offline.

In a world where people are constantly online, and young people have access to the internet before they can learn about how to navigate it, changes need to be made to protect both existing and upcoming users. Young people are impressionable and look up to role models to lead and answer the questions they have about our world. Schools should teach digital literacy skills to both parents and children, teaching young people how to interact with and interpret content, while teaching parents what to look for when a child is exposed to dangerous content. 

Protecting the next generation requires not only teaching young people but also teaching adults how to discern truth from conspiracy. Millennials and older Gen Z missed the opportunity to be taught how to interact with these materials and were instead thrust into a digital landscape rife with misinformation and hatred. The next generation does not have to grow up in the same environment; changes can be made to protect them, but it must be a well-rounded effort. 

Jordan Chapman is a researcher and policy analyst focusing on far-right extremism in the US and Europe. She holds an MA in International Conflict Studies from King’s College London.