Celebrity Messages and the Media at Standing Rock

Curator's Note

The 2016 proposed construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in North Dakota threatened the environmental and cultural legacy of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (SRST).  In an effort to protect what is most important to them, the SRST developed a protest message of protecting their sacred sites and water supply. This original message quickly changed as celebrities, and the media that follows them, contributed to the protest. 

The list of celebrities adding their voices to the NODAPL protest is long: actors Shailene Woodley, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Redford, Willow and Jaden Smith, Susan Sarandon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Chris Hemsworth, Jane Fonda, and Samuel L. Jackson; politicians like former Vice-President Al Gore, Senator Bernie Sanders, and presidential hopeful Jill Stein; singers Dave Matthews, Taboo, Ani Difranco, and Neko Case; and other influential individuals such as Rev. Jesse Jackson and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr..  This list is hardly complete.  

It quickly became apparent that the media began to focus on the celebrity message rather than the original message created by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe; pushing the original message to the background.  This occurs because celebrities are seen as authorities despite their background or real interest in the situation.  Meyer and Gamson (1995) discuss how celebrities reframe messages to become less controversial and more sexy, if you will; therefore of more interest to the media and general public.  This is done to bolster the image of the celebrity, to show he or she is a real person with real concerns.  Many celebrity messages were similar to SRST, like the desire for a clean environment, but the original message was lost.  Rather than supporting the message of sacred land and water protection, celebrities began discussing Native Rights, renewable energy, or withdrawing money from DAPL-supportive banks.  These messages were made directly to celebrity audiences through social media while national news organizations shared celebrity messages to media audiences.  Actions by celebrities, while potentially made with best interests at heart, did not support the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their attempt to halt construction of the pipeline.


Meyer, D., & Gamson, J. (1995). The challenge of cultural elites: Celebrities and social movements. Sociological Inquiry, 6(2), 181-206.



Excellent post about the risks and results of celebrity voices in protests. The celebrity exists as a spectacle (as a persona separate from their basic existence) and makes the protest an extension of that spectacle. Even with the best of intentions and their own rights to civic activities, celebrities shifted the focus of the DAPL actions. I imagine those actions as a range of efforts: treaty debates, regional political negotiations, court cases, letters and phonecalls as well as the public demonstrations and physical resistance at the site. But the celebrities only highlight the public demonstrations, intensifying the obsession with such efforts and further marginalizing the other forms of resistance in the legal, political, financial, and legislative arenas. It seems like a convergence of spectacle: the celebrity and the public demonstration.

Very good post on the confluence of celebrity "causes" and the sideshow media circus. The spectacle of the media (what they covered, what they didn't cover, and the FB live streaming all played into the mismanagement of coverage. I can remember seeing half a dozen celebrities go up there and talk, but never saw interviews with the indigenous people the pipeline actually endangers on large news stations (I guess a tangential issue here is the rise of social media journalism as a way to garner attention for real issues). There are so many problems with the way mainstream, corporate media chose not to cover a large portion of the discussion, specifically ignoring state police action against peaceful protesters, that is really problematic -- the packaging of news is not about conveying newsworthy information or reporting on situations, but on what is most attractive as spectacle (and hence pulls in ad revenue). I think most stations didn't cover this fracas because of the obvious civil rights violations; when the spectacle is oppression or violation, there's no good spin.

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