What's in a public figure?

Oct 30, 2017

Cayley Olivier, Pepperdine student

When looking at the dictionary definition of a public figure in the realm of United States law, the definition includes politicians, celebrities, or business leaders who hold some sort of influence over others. That realm includes everyone from President Trump to Kylie Jenner's lips. However, with brands now using micro-influencers, to target their consumers even more "organically' it does beg us to ask the question of what it really means to be a public figure?

If you have ever been on an Instagram explore page, you would've probably found yourself on some fitness junkie's account noticing they got hundreds of thousands of likes on a broccoli and chicken meal prep photo. Or you might have found yourself on Doug the Pugs account admiring his recent "Pugtober is here" post questioning how your #nofilter mirror selfie only got 23 likes. The difference is that meal prep Melanie and Doug the pug have more influence than you, meaning they have more followers, more engagement, and ultimately more people interested in their lives.

You may be shouting at this paper, but Cayley, you cant possibly put Donald Trump in the same basket of humans as Doug the Pug?! But yes, essentially they are all public figures. There are different levels of public figures, which serves as a point of differentiation: macro- influencers, micro-influencers, and just normal, regular people.

While working at an Advertising Agency this summer in their social media and media departments, I was able to use a program called Tap Influence. It is essentially a dating website for brands and influencers. This program is a platform for agencies and brands to search for influencers based on what they post about, how many followers they have, what their engagement is like, and see their previous jobs. This platform also includes their budget, a so-called "media kit,' of what they charge for different kinds of posts. Meal prep Melanie is obviously going to charge significantly less than Kylie Jenner's lips to advertise a certain product, simply because Kylie's lips have more influence. However, anyone who has influence must be considered a public figure. More often than not, people like meal prep Melanie and Doug the Pug end up getting more engagement because their followers are a niche audience who is more interested in their lives than the 98.4 million people that follow Kylie Jenner.

Because they are considered to all be public figures, they must be treated the same under the law. All of these people cannot base a lawsuit on wrongful or incorrect statements unless there is proof that the writer knew the information was false or intentionally disregarded the pursuit for the truth.

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Cayley Olivier, 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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