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Mini-Lesson
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Influence, Celebrity, and the Dangers of Online Hate

Explore questions around the power of social media influencers and consider who has the ability to counter online hate.

Published:

At a Glance

Mini-Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • Social Studies

Grade

6–12
  • Propaganda

Overview

About This Mini-Lesson

This mini-lesson is part two of a two-part exploration of online hate speech, celebrity influence, and the real-life consequences they can engender.

Social media allows users to share unvetted content instantly with extensive audiences. Policies on what users can post on platforms are broad and often loosely enforced, which gives people the ability to use social media to spread hateful messages. Influencers and celebrities in particular often have millions of online followers, and their messages can quickly catch the attention of the general public. This mini-lesson helps students explore the potential power and responsibility of celebrities and social media influencers, as well as encourages students to think critically about how social media campaigns can be used to raise awareness about hate. Each activity can be used on its own or taught in any combination best suited to your students.

This mini-lesson is designed to be adaptable. You can use the activities in sequence or choose a selection best suited to your classroom. It includes:

  • 3 activities
  • Student-facing slides
  • Recommended articles for exploring this topic

Online hate speech targeting people because of their identities is disturbingly widespread across the world and can lead to violence. 1 In the United States, 33% of Americans who responded to a 2021 ADL survey reported experiencing identity-based harassment online. 2 Online hate can take the form of a direct attack against an individual or content that stereotypes or targets the identity of a group of people. These messages can spread quickly on social media, especially if influencers or celebrities amplify them by sharing with their large online followings. The two most followed people on Instagram have followers in the range of 346 million to 494 million. 3 For comparison, 67.5 million people visited the Washington Post’s website during the month of August 2022. 4 This means that top online influencers have the potential to reach hundreds of millions more people than one of the most widely read newspapers in the country. Celebrities and influencers can also choose to use their online reach to raise awareness about bigotry and hate, and all social media users can participate in online campaigns to raise awareness.

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Activities

Activities

Share the following definition of the term influencer with your students:

a person who inspires or guides the actions of others 1

Then, ask your students to respond to the following prompt in their journals:

Think of someone you consider to be an influencer. What qualities (such as their personality, life experience, values, or relationship to you) give them the power to inspire or guide your actions or the actions of other people?

When students have finished writing, invite them to share answers to the following question:

Why do you think people care what influencers do or say?

Then, share the following definition of the term celebrity with your students:

a famous or celebrated person 2

Give students two minutes to write down ideas in response to the following question:

Who is a famous person you admire? Why do you admire them?

Give two to three students the opportunity to share their responses with the class.

Then, ask your students to discuss the following questions in pairs:

  • What do you think it means to celebrate a person? Why do we tend to celebrate famous people?
  • How do you think social media helps celebrities become influencers? Can you think of any examples of social media helping influencers become celebrities? 

Finally, ask students to respond to the following prompt in their journals:

Because so many celebrities and influencers have the power to guide the beliefs and actions of others, some might call them “role models,” or people whose behavior is often imitated by others. What makes someone a good role model on social media? Do you think that most celebrities or influencers on social media are good role models? Why or why not?

Share the following visual representing the reach of different celebrity influencers with your students (you can also find this visual in the Slides for this mini-lesson):

Ask your students:

  • What can you learn from this infographic?
  • What questions does it raise for you?

Then, ask your students to discuss the following questions in small groups of three to four:

  • Consider the popular phrase, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Would you apply that to social media influencers and celebrities? Why or why not?
  • What are some examples of how a celebrity or influencer might use their reach to help people? How might they use their reach to harm people?
  • What impact might it have if someone who has a large following spreads bigotry, intolerance, or hate speech online? 
  • What makes it hard to take a stand against hate when it comes from someone you or many others admire?
  • What strategies can people use to stand against harmful words or ideas that someone influential posts online?

Finally, use the Wraparound strategy to allow each student to share a phrase in response to the question:

What makes it hard to take a stand against hate when it comes from someone you or many others admire?

Once each student has shared, ask students what common themes they noticed, or if any responses surprised them.

Then repeat the process with the question:

What strategies can people use to stand against harmful words or ideas that someone influential posts online?

This activity asks students to think about the benefits and limitations of using social media campaigns to stand up against hate. For more ideas about how people and organizations can respond to online hate speech, see “Activity 3: What Can People Do to Combat Online Hate” of our mini-lesson When Online Hate Speech Has Real-World Consequences.

People often turn to social media when they want to raise awareness about an issue involving bigotry and hate. Ask students to read the two examples below of social media campaigns that lead to widespread sharing on social media (this text can also be found in the Slides for this mini-lesson):

#BlackoutTuesday: On June 2, 2020, many social media users, including celebrities with large online followings such as Ariana Grande and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, replaced their profile pictures with black squares. This campaign, known as “blackout Tuesday,” was meant to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The campaign sparked some controversy: proponents saw it as a way to raise awareness and show support for racial justice, while some critics saw it as a performance that would not bring about real change.

#StopAsianHate: In March 2021 a gunman killed eight people, including six Asian women, at spas in the Atlanta area in a racially-motivated and misogynistic hate crime. Afterward, the K-pop group BTS posted a tweet decrying violence targeting people of Asian descent using the hashtag #StopAsianHate. This tweet was the most retweeted of the year in 2021. Other social media users have used this hashtag, as well as #StopAAPIHate, to raise awareness of hate crimes targeting people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent. While this hashtag helped bring unprecedented and vital attention to the issue of violence against people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, violence targeting people with these identities has remained high. 

Then, discuss the following questions with students:

  • How can celebrities and influencers use social media campaigns to help create or amplify awareness of an issue they care about? How can young people use social media campaigns to help to raise awareness of an issue they care about? 
  • What are other examples of online awareness campaigns that you have heard of?
  • After people have raised awareness about an issue, what else needs to happen to create change?

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Materials and Downloads

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The slides below contain student-facing versions of the activities in this mini-lesson.

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