Strangers know public figures

Nov 20, 2017

Marcy Channon, Pepperdine student

A public figure in 2017 is much different than a public figure thirty years ago - or even five years ago. With the rise of social media and a world obsessed with whistle-blowing small mistakes and celebrating pop-culture, the definition of a true public figure has become uncertain. In my opinion, a public figure is anyone with the ability to influence others through their image, actions, or words. Although arguably anyone can influence someone else to do something, a public figure is set apart from the Average Joe because they are recognized by people that have not met them and do not actually know them. A public figure's "private" life is amplified by the media or through their intentional personal use of media platforms, making information about them (beyond the norm of an average person) accessible to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

A public figure can be anyone from a political figurehead, to a YouTube star, to the "Octo-Mom." They can exist in a variety of industries and usually have titles given to them based on their occupation or their reputation. For example, "influencer," "columnist," "politician," "train wreck," "CEO," "news anchor," hero," or "celebrity" are all categories of public figures. Hence, the umbrella term "public figure" encompasses a large scope people that do all types of different things, but their weight in the public's eye and ability to influence others is dependent on their reputation, occupation, and overall credibility.

Although someone might technically be a public figure, their overall recognition by the public would determine whether they are "major" or "minor" public figure. For instance, public figures could be arranged with the lowest, or least important public figures, being 15-minute-fame-rs and minor social media influencers, and the highest being well-respected business people, politicians, and A-list celebrities. Minor public figures are less influential to the general public, whereas major public figures can't do anything without the world knowing about it. On the other hand, people can also define their own "major" public figures based on what they personally think is important or interesting. One person's idol might be the most irrelevant person on the planet to another.

I think the easy way to know you're a public figure is when even strangers care about what you're doing or saying. Today, it is truer than ever - and definitely possible - that anyone can become a public figure if they want to be. There is a strange mix that is one part reputation, one part narrative, one part occupation or action, and one part luck that creates a true public figure in 2017.


Marcy Channon, 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.

Sign Up for Pfeiffer Law's Monthly Newsletter

Contact Jon and his team today.

Subscribe