More followers, the more influence

Nov 01, 2017

Katherine Sciortino, Pepperdine student

I believe that public figures are those that have a large following, who have "fans" and "followers" that have most likely never met them personally but know about their life, interests, or opinions on various topics. These days, public figures range from YouTube stars to Instagram influencers to the typical actor or talk show host. With social media creating new platforms for influencers and public figures to create content and express themselves, the view of who a public figure is has evolved from what it once was. For instance, popular "YouTubers" speak on conferences such as Vid Con, are interviewed by websites and magazines, and even promote and are in major advertising campaigns for various products. The brands that advertise with them know that they have a following, a group of people who genuinely care about what they think and in this case, their experience with products. Of course, just because a brand collaborates with someone does not necessarily mean that they are a public figure. I do not think that a micro-influencer, with just 5,000 or so followers, would be considered famous or a public figure.

Especially considering the legal aspects of this, stating that public figures have different regulations for defamation than private citizens. If a major tabloid, such as OK! Magazine wrote an article criticizing an Instagrammer with just a few thousand followers, they would not be able to get away with that, legally. Even if another Instagrammer or influencer wrote defamatory things about a person, they would not be able to get away with it because the person also has a following, especially if the one at fault was a much better-known figure. We all have a following of some sort, people that know us and even some that don't, who keep up with us on social media and online. But that doesn't make the average Joe a public figure. Also, if the person has a following that is small but important to them and their career and creative interests, than defaming them would have a much greater effect than speaking ill of Kim Kardashian, who has thousands if not millions of fans who will care about what she says and does no matter what is said about her.

Recently I read an article about Instagrammer and influencer, Lauren Bullen (@gypsea_lust). I have been following her for a few months and she is an Australian travel and photography influencer. In the past few months, she had posted about a girl who went to the same locations as her and took the same photographs, complete with nearly identical outfits, captions, and poses. Lauren was irate that someone copied her art and claimed that it was their own, when she it is Lauren's career to craft and produce content for social media, often endorsing products for various brands. However, she received backlash for including the girl's Instagram handle and bashing her publically on her own social media. In the article, Lauren states that she has apologized to the girl for her response and they have discussed the issue, but she knows how much her Instagram account means to her career as an Influencer, since it is her main platform, by far. Lauren admits that people had criticized her and accused her of creating the scandal herself in order to get more followers. She responded by saying that she would never do that because if anything backfired with that, she has her reputation to lose. In this case, I would say that Lauren Bullen is a public figure, as she has 1.9 million followers on Instagram, while the other girl, whose profile I cannot even locate, is not. Teen Vogue even picked up on this story, as well. Clearly, Lauren is public enough to garner the major magazine and its readers' attention, as the headline reads, "Girl Follows and Copies Gypsea Lust Travel Blogger's Instagram Photos." As I stated earlier, I do not think that it was right for Lauren to publically humiliate the girl either, especially when she has such a large following and the girl may have experienced cyberbullying and hateful comments because of this feature.


Katherine Sciortino, a student in Jon Pfeiffer's Fall 2017 Media Law class at Pepperdine University, wrote the above essay in response to the prompt:

As you've been reading cases this week, you may have noticed that the rules for defamation are different for private and public figures. That's why tabloids can get away with saying crazy things about the Kardashians, even though we know they're just a made-up family who is not actually biologically related. But the world is changing. More and more people are gaining recognition as influencers on social media. Brand companies are now targeting micro-influencers to push product as people tend to trust recommendations from their friends instead of people with huge followings. All of this is to say that it seems that what constitutes as a public figure today is not the same as what would constitute as a public figure 20 years ago. But obviously, not everyone with a twitter account is a public figure… or are they? Where do we draw a line? Define a public figure.

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