Celebrity Politics and Soft Power, with Brandon Valeriano

Dec 13, 2023 30 min listen

Celebrity and social media are changing the political game globally. Next year, 2024, will see more than 40 national elections from the U.S. to Mexico, India, Russia, and Taiwan; meanwhile 27 European Union nations will vote for 720 European Parliament seats.

Seton Hall University's Dr. Brandon Valeriano joins Doorstep co-hosts Tatiana Serafin and Nikolas Gvosdev to discuss the resurgence of soft power and what that means for both domestic and foreign policy. How will Taylor Swift, BTS, and Bad Bunny reshape our discussion of international affairs and social issues? What cybersecurity threats do we need to address as Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok take over the information space?

Celebrity Politics Doorstep Spotify podcast link Celebrity Politics Doorstep Apple podcast link

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this special year-end edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council, welcoming in a moment Dr. Brandon Valeriano, assistant professor at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations, who will be speaking to us about a wide variety of topics, but as we go into the important year of 2024 where the world will change with over 40 elections in major countries—Russia, India, and the United States—we are talking about significant changes, and Dr. Valeriano is going to take us through them.

Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Valeriano. We are so excited to have you on our last podcast of the year to review the confusion that is going on in the international space.

As we look ahead to next year, 2024, we have about 40 big elections happening around the world, representing about 50 percent of gross domestic product, so these are big countries—the United States and India.

We wanted to bring you on because of your expertise in cybersecurity and also your expertise in popular culture and conflicts, because what we have been reading over the last couple of months is so much more popular culture—i.e., celebrities getting involved in government and talking about what they want to do and say—and I want to talk about what that is going to mean next year and what we should look out for as social media really takes over political messaging.

I want to start out with some of your reflections on what you are expecting to see or where you are going to look for threats, concerns, or maybe positive things. I do not want to be a naysayer at the end of the year. Maybe there are positive things to be found as we look forward in social media and cybersecurity.

BRANDON VALERIANO: That is where I would start off. I teach introduction to international relations. I have not done that in about ten years, and sadly this is probably one of the most depressing years to do that since 9/11 basically. It has been a horrible, horrible year. There is a perplexing number of conflicts that are hitting a crescendo at the same time, and it is tough to be positive with the students.

But there is one layer of positivity, and that is soft power. I think we are seeing a resurgence of soft power through the power of social media and through the power of modern globalization, networks, and marketplaces, and that has really changed the landscape in ways that we probably never expected: from Taylor Swift becoming the most powerful person in America to in many ways K-pop even challenging the power of China and the Belt and Road. There are a number of fronts to look at where we can see some positive developments, but as I said, it is a very, very tough year to see that.

TATIANA SERAFIN: When we were looking at the Taylor Swift/K-pop phenomena, we came up with Argentina as the prime example. Since they just inaugurated their new president yesterday, maybe we can start with what happened there. Did actually the people who were calling themselves “Swifties” make any impact on that election? They were certainly against Milei, but he ended up winning.

BRANDON VALERIANO: The real challenge of soft power is that it is tough to find empirical results, and that is where we are looking for new and exciting pathways.

The traditional path of activism to electoral politics does not really work with popular culture and the youth vote. It is tough to predict the youth vote. It is tough to the turnout of the youth vote. There is aways that Nixonian silent majority that is always there.

But the power of soft power, the power of cultural politics, is in many ways accelerating rapidly, and to see the power that Swift has accrued, even in Latin America—she had a horrible incident where a fan died because the concert promotor did not provide a venue that could deal with the heat, the size, and the capacity of the crowd. She turned it into a positive. The fans rallied behind the person. She eventually had her people reach out to the person and to the family and made things right. But, on the other hand, her deep concern for her fans really came out.

It is not the same when these incidents have happened elsewhere, especially like Ariana Grande in the United Kingdom and Travis Scott in the United States. That is not to say that they did poorly; they just did not do as well as Taylor Swift. Her impact in Latin America is profound. Even K-pop is moving to Latin America.

The other question we have, of course, is the other question we have is the rise of Bad Bunny and the rise of Spotify not being dominated by English singing acts anymore. These are profound global changes that I think people are missing because they have a very narrow view of what pop culture is.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That raises an interesting question. The theoreticians, particularly based in the United States, have always assumed soft power is one-way: It goes out from the United States, it influences the rest of the world, it is English-language media, and it is trends that start in the United States.

What does the globalization of soft power—where a K-pop band can be big in Latin America; the Bad Bunny performance on Saturday Night Live earlier in the year, which I think was the first for the amount of Spanish-Language content that was done in an ostensibly English-speaking format on U.S. network television—is the United States prepared for others being able to exercise greater soft power vis-à-vis the United States?

BRANDON VALERIANO: I don’t think we need to look at it as an “us versus them” question. Maybe you do if you are a traditional realist and you see the world as zero sum and you see gains from other states as being negatives for the United States, but in reality I think the United States hit a crescendo around the 1970s, where you are not going to get bigger than McDonald’s, Disney, and Cola-Cola. That is the general height of soft power, and it will never get bigger, I don’t think, in any way besides the “tulip crash” and things like that.

The reality is that America hit its heights, and at some point we need to accept that soft power needs to go hand in hand with traditional diplomacy and traditional hard power. At some point, at least after the Vietnam War, there is nothing the United States can do that will gain any positivity for it because tipping point has already accelerated. It reached that kind of point.

But this is where Latin America, this is where the K-wave comes in, this is where other countries and other groups get to shine, and they can express their soft power. You can look at it positively or negatively, but it is kind of in some ways hilarious that as much as we talk about the rising power of China and the rising fears and threats we have from China, that they cannot create global movies, they cannot create global culture, they cannot compete on the global music scene, and that they are fearful of boy bands wearing makeup. Things like that just demonstrate that they are incapable of dealing with the modern reality and that the Chinese are going to have a very difficult struggle to achieve any sort of soft power gains.

Like I said, you need to look at this as a constellation, that you need soft power plus you need diplomacy plus you need hard power, and if China only really has one, if it only really has hard power—and even that is probably not that great as we saw with Russia and Ukraine—then it really punctures this kind of myth of the ascendency of China.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Let’s also talk about the power of celebrities going into politics. There is that movement. Here is the soft power with celebrities influencing, but now we have celebrities as politicians and changing the nature of politics as entertainment or something different than what we saw before. Do you see that accelerating next year and as we look ahead to all of these elections around the world?

BRANDON VALERIANO: Yes. I am a little bit traditional, and this is probably where this goes, in that I do not look to celebrities for international relations news—and, obviously, as a professor of international relations, I shouldn’t—but some people do. I was shocked to discover that my students expect the celebrity to say something, they expect the celebrity to be out ahead, and they expect the celebrity to say something that they approve of and they like, and when they don’t they are really, really challenged.

It will be interesting to see what happens. One of the stars of Stranger Things was very pro-Israel, and I think a lot of the Palestinian-supporting world, which is probably the majority at this point, is going to react very negatively when Stranger Things comes back, and this sort of blowback when you do not say the right thing under the eyes of the fans is the challenge.

It is enlightening from the Korean perspective because there is a relationship between the fan and the performer and there is this balance; the Korean acts go through these rituals of not stating and saying the right thing and not promoting this or that.

Other global stars do not have that perspective, and I think it is probably going to be more and more important in the coming future that celebrities start to think and weigh what they saying and weigh the consequences because there is no right thing to say in these situations, and having this expectation that you should weight in on international politics when probably you did not even graduate from the seventh grade is only asking for trouble.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Yet we do find that celebrities do weigh in. I was reading, and Nick and I were speaking about, Cardi B saying she won’t support Biden this time around in the election. How much is her voice important in getting out the vote? Did she get out the vote for Biden, and is it going to negatively impact him going forward considering all the questions about his age, etc.?

It is interesting to see how celebrities use their power vis-à-vis politics and, to your point again, what people expect celebrities to do or say. I wonder if you have any insight into that. Do you see that symbiotic relationship growing or, to your point, do you see people backing off because they don’t want to be canceled?

BRANDON VALERIANO: This goes back to my other work, my main work and the stuff I do day to day, which is cybersecurity. We have to hearken back to the 2016 election and the impact the Russians had on that election. While the Russians were devastatingly devious and did seek to impact the election and did have a variety of hacks that they thought would impact the United States electorate, it is not clear that they actually did impact anything because the problem we have is converting.

Basically, the thing is that you are speaking to an echo chamber. The question is really: Is a Cardi B fan going to not vote and would her words deter someone from showing up at the polling place in the first place? That is probably unlikely but it might have an impact. But once you go to the polling place and you are framed with that choice of Biden versus Trump, the choice is fairly obvious. So it is not like that kind of question is going to drive an impact, it is really the turnout, and that is where the Taylor Swifts of the world can have the most impact, driving people who do not typically vote.

It is interesting from the Southern perspective because you have a lot of the youth vote and a lot of the younger generation who do not vote because they do not see any point in voting. They see the structures and institutions working against them, so they do not feel like mobilizing.

The other audience that Cardi B might be speaking to has already come out. They have already turned out before, they have come out before for Barack Obama, and hopefully they will come out again. That is going to be the challenge for Joe Biden. It is not his age, it is not Trump, it is not anything but driving the youth turnout and how popular culture and even Palestine will impact this turnout.

Right now it is tough to get a handle on that because it is unclear what you should say. As we saw with the university presidents the other day, there is no right, fine path that you can walk here, and that is what is required sometimes.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I wanted to get to the question of driving turnout, raising consciousness, and people expecting celebrities to make statements.

Since we opened with Taylor Swift, it was very interesting that back in 2016 that Swift herself or the entourage around her was very careful to try to keep her out of politics. There was a sense that anything she said would alienate a group of fans. They wanted to hold everything together. People projected onto Taylor Swift what they thought her views were. Then she starts releasing more activist music—I don’t know what the term would be—where you could start to see more of a sense of what her views on some of the issues were.

How strong is that dynamic? When you say that people are waiting and they want a celebrity, is it simply that they are looking for guidance or they are looking for validation of opinions that they have? Could Taylor Swift stand up and say on any particular domestic or foreign policy issue, “This is what I think”—would people gravitate to that; or would they say, “She does not align with what I already think, therefore I am not going to buy her records, I am not going to download her songs, I am not going to go to her concerts?” What is that relationship between celebrity and public when it comes to the issues of the day?

BRANDON VALERIANO: I think most would view this very rationally. Someone like me, who even pays very extreme attention to pop culture, is not going to be swayed by what these people say. But the reality is we have to understand that there is a large proportion of people who have no opinion, who have not even thought about these issues, that it has just kind of passed them by.

We forget that a lot of people, especially people who are 18 or 19, basically grew up during the pandemic. What does that mean when you are locked at home, when you develop all these parasocial relationships, and then this person comes out and says one thing or the other?

I found the Billie Eilish thing the other day very, very striking. The accusation was that [Variety] outed her. I have no idea what was going on with all that, but the joke was basically that Billie Eilish lost 100,000 fans when she came out as bisexual.

The real joke is that she would have lost millions if she didn’t come out as bisexual because sexuality now is fluid for a large proportion of the younger generation. I think people do not understand that. They believe it to be “woke,” they believe it to be leftist. It is just how it is. Watch Euphoria, watch anything.

These kids are living a different life, and good for them. That is how every generation grows up and every generation develops, and they need to stand on their own two feet and develop their own opinions, and sometimes these opinions will be shaped by these parasocial relationships that they developed over time.

The question is, if you are a parent: Are you moderating these connections, are you moderating these feelings, are you moderating these relationships, and who are your children really following? The reality is that most of these people are 18 and make up their minds for themselves, and they already have. There is nothing we can do about it.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Can I tie this cybersecurity question back into that? As Tatiana said, as we move into election seasons and the like, what is the risk of celebrity deepfaking moving forward—that is, that someone is able to create what appears to be pick any celebrity saying X, Y, or Z about something either to let it percolate through these parasocial networks or to create embarrassment for either the celebrity or for a political movement?

We have already seen the impact over the years of hacking on celebrities, phones being hacked, messages being hacked, and photos and images being hacked. Is there a risk now of the greater deepfake celebrity nexus becoming more prominent as we move into the middle of the decade?

BRANDON VALERIANO: That is a great question, and it is entirely and utterly fascinating. I think one of the challenges is—and I deal with this when speaking to my mom. I talk to my mother sometimes. She does not have my father anymore. She is entirely confused by the Internet. She does not understand that what comes out on the Internet is not exactly the truth. The challenge is that the younger generation assumes that what comes out on the Internet is not the truth. They have already built in that skepticism.

I love these artificial intelligence generators. There is this K-pop band, Luna, which disbanded and broke up, and people use these AI generators to have your favorite band sing other songs you like. That is really cool. That is pretty interesting.

We accept that what we see on the Internet is not exactly the truth in reality, and getting people to understand that division between truth and reality is a tough thing.

I think even Taylor Swift did a great service the other day when she did the Time magazine Person of the Year interview and she brought up the Kardashian exchange. The key thing I think many people missed about that Kardashian/Kanye exchange, where Kim Kardashian recorded Taylor Swift and exposed her, is that that was a selected and edited conversation.

You have millions if not billions of Taylor Swift fans waking up to this idea that what they hear their celebrities say may be edited and selected for very nefarious purposes, and maybe that person may be a Kardashian, maybe that person may be a Kanye West, or maybe that person may be Channel 4 News. They do not necessarily trust what they see out on the Internet because they have been living with this fake reality for so long.

The challenge is really for the older generation to accept this and deal with this and just realize that “Biden would never say that”—and of course he would not say some of these things that people are going to make him say—or the same thing with Trump. That skepticism is not there naturally for the older people, so I worry about the older people, not the younger people actually.

TATIANA SERAFIN: It is so interesting that you say that. One of my concerns with my students is that they are getting their information from TikTok. Maybe they are skeptical, but they are still accepting it as truth. They will not read the news themselves, but they will listen to someone reading the news to them, and how do you know who that person is? So you have these pseudo-celebrities that are considered news sources.

My concern has become the news sector. Sports Illustrated just got into a host of trouble having bylines with fake photos.

You might be skeptical, but how do you distinguish what is news? As we go forward into a very important election year that could possibly change the world, this is going to be happening—multiply it in every country—that information is going to be out there that can easily be manipulated. Forget about deepfakes, just fake information.

BRANDON VALERIANO: That is a great point. One thing is the reality that there is no news anymore. The younger generations have no conception of what the news is. My class was telling me that you can look at Gaza through Snapchat. Why would you even want to do that? But for them, that was reality.

We were talking about the hospital bombing early on, and they were telling me about the sonic profiles of missiles. It is just that we have these 18-year-olds who think they are sonic intelligence engineers all of a sudden, and it is because of social media. It is because there is no defined news source for them. There is no truth for them. Truth is everything around them.

That is going to be a struggle for people to understand that there is no monoculture, there is no nightly news, there is no 5:00 Peter Jennings that everyone watches. No one even knows what 60 Minutes is anymore, let alone this kind of vanguard news show every Sunday. These things are not a reality.

The reality is what is in front of them through their social media feed. That is something that we need to do better at, and it is something I obviously struggled with during the recent rise in conflict in Gaza: How do you put the right sources to these kids? How do you ensure that they look at the right sources; how do you get them to have some sort of critical reflection as to what the right source may be?

I do not know what the answer is to that. I can happily say for some people that means maybe we need more open-source intelligence classes. We need to start to think different about methods. It is not just about writing and it is not about constructing this good essay. It is about rethinking what a source is, and that is going to be a profound challenge to academia and the cultural milieu into the future.

Another thing you can do is break down these myths. I gave my final the other day, and I just put the ChatGPT answer. I just showed it to them because there is no point in hiding it, they are going to do it, and they are going to have to realize that ChatGPT is no better than Wikipedia in some cases and that they need to do better and they need to figure out where they can critique and where they can build all these sources.

I think the thing is to sanitize these sources by just confronting them with these sources and just deal with it: “You want to use it, go for it. Now tell me what it means.”

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think I might steal that for my final.

I wanted to say on social media there is another thing that concerns me, not just sourcing and questioning sources, but also who owns social media and how they are deploying thought.

We talk about new world order; this is a new digital world order. The people who own that digital space are not governments. They are the Elon Musks of the world, they are the Sergey Brins. This private power in terms of our information that we are supposedly getting free and fair is not free and fair. I wonder globally what that means and what you are seeing in terms of information in the private hands of very, very powerful billionaires.

BRANDON VALERIANO: It is a huge concern obviously. I think many academics, including me, during the pandemic spent hours and hours on Zoom—I am sure we all need a support group for that—and we all developed this habit of doomscrolling on Twitter, and Twitter became the third appendage in some ways to our academic lives, and to see it become what it has become is really a challenge for all of us.

But it also goes to show that there are no pillars to society. there are no clear leaders, there are no clear people we should necessarily look up to. This idea that we should expect good behavior from these conglomerates, these multinational cooperations, these individuals like Elon Musk—it never should have been like that in the first place, and we need to be more skeptical.

I think the other thing is that the younger generation does not care who runs what. They don’t know who Zuckerberg is. They don’t know who Elon Musk is that much. I think it is more of a concern for the older generation.

The younger generation can perfectly interact and work with Twitter because Twitter does some things that other social media networks don’t. Particularly Twitter’s content moderation is fairly poor, which is obviously a problem for Twitter in Europe, but it is very good for people who want to use Twitter for certain things and for certain platforms. So Twitter is not going to go away. Twitter is going to remain.

I always tell this story, and I love this story, where basically the Russians got mad at me for something I said about cybersecurity and they wrote a Sputnik article about me. It basically was saying that Dr. Valeriano is a shill for Jeff Bezos because he wrote for The Washington Post. I worked for the Marine Corps at the time. Even the Russians can’t get it right. They made this 1 to 2 to A to C that he is being a shill for The Washington Post even though The Washington Post never pays people for opinions, and they didn’t even notice that I worked for the Marine Corps.

I don’t think people notice. I don’t think people care. I don’t think people dive in that deep as to the sources of these conglomerations. And I don’t really know if it matters.

It is a tough question with Twitter, but the same thing with Disney. Do you like Bob Iger? Do you know who Bob Iger is? Does it matter? It doesn’t matter for me as long as I get a Thrawn movie from Star Wars. I don’t care who is in charge. So I don’t know.

TATIANA SERAFIN: What are you looking at in terms of cybersecurity issues? You mentioned ChatGPT. We just had some proposed AI rules come out of the European Union. What are your concerns as we look into 2024 and the plethora of elections around the world?

BRANDON VALERIANO: I think one is the cybersecurity conversation is becoming a little bit more realistic. In many ways, we have moved away from these doomsday scenarios and are moving more toward the idea of what cybersecurity really is a threat to. It is really a threat to information and that you can use cyber tools and cyber means to steal information and then reposition it toward another audience—maybe what you might call a “hack and leak”—and we have not seen that very much.

This idea of a “cyber Pearl Harbor” has not happened, let alone this idea of a massive hack and leak where all this information spills out and we have to reconsider what society means and what money means and things like that. That has not happened either.

So really what is the challenge for cybersecurity? It is more about protecting the basics, protecting the critical infrastructure, and that is what I am concerned about into the future.

Particularly water. Water is a key vulnerability because people do not invest enough in water and the protection of water, and we have enough challenges to our water system with climate change, lead pipes, and other things, let alone with cybersecurity. That leads to vulnerability.

I think what we need to rethink is how we ensure resiliency and the continuation of the economy and how we ensure the security of these under-thought-of targets—whether that be reproductive rights, whether that be cybersecurity for an entire poor neighborhood because are generally central nodes that you can hack things like that. These things can be fairly devastating.

So it is not taking down the hospitals, it is not the ransomware, it is not the cryptocurrency. It is the more basic things that I think we have forgotten through all the hype and hysteria of the recent cyberwar era that we need to go back and refix and rethink.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you so much for your time today. We appreciate you coming on to our end-of-year podcast, and we look forward to hearing from you next year to see if some of your predictions came true.

BRANDON VALERIANO: Great. Thank you for having me.

Watch the Video

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

You may also like

Left to Right: Nikolas Gvosdev, Tatiana Serafin, Peter Goodman. CREDIT: Noha Mahmoud.

JUN 13, 2024 Podcast

How the World Ran Out of Everything, with Peter S. Goodman

In the final "Doorstep" podcast, "New York Times" reporter Peter Goodman discusses how geopolitics is connected to the goods that end up on our doorstep.

MAY 23, 2024 Podcast

U.S. Election 2024 in a Post-Policy World, with Tom Nichols

"Atlantic" staff writer Tom Nichols returns to "The Doorstep" in its penultimate episode to discuss the lead-up to the 2024 U.S. presidential election.

MAY 13, 2024 Podcast

The Continuing Exploitation of the Global Sugar Trade, with Megha Rajagopalan

In collaboration with Marymount Manhattan College's Social Justice Academy, Tatiana Serafin & "New York Times" reporter Megha Rajagopalan discuss human rights & the global sugar trade.