The worlds of sports and entertainment celebrities, social media, and politics have in some ways never been more closely linked. Last week, the New York Times ran a profile of “celebrity activist” Alyssa Milano. Recently, Ellen DeGeneres was caught on camera watching a Dallas Cowboys game with former president George W. Bush; she was attacked on Twitter and in the media by people who accused her of, for instance, “trying to erase the war crimes” of her seatmate. Meanwhile, after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for the Hong Kong protesters, China sanctioned the NBA. Morey’s tweet was removed, and NBA players and coaches came under fire in the United States for their cautious response to the controversy.

Michael Jordan famously once said (or may have said) that “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” illustrating the conventional wisdom that celebrities don’t want to alienate potential customers by becoming associated with a political position.

But is this still true? We examined this question in research recently published in the journal Perspectives on Politics. By analyzing tweets of American actors, athletes and other cultural icons during the 2016 presidential campaign, we found that tweeting about politics can actually benefit celebrities, at least insofar as we believe celebrities turn to platforms like Twitter to get attention.

How we did our research

Last year, we identified more than 80 entertainment-industry celebrities who had endorsed a major candidate for president in 2016. We studied the social media timelines of those who spoke favorably about — or explicitly endorsed — Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. Among our subjects were Ellen DeGeneres and LeBron James.

We examined these celebrities’ tweets — and their followers’ reactions — that were posted from January 2016 to May 2018. We wanted to measure how their fans reacted when these entertainers veered “out of their lane” and into politics.

Celebrities use Twitter, often in creative ways, for self-promotion. Sometimes they also use it to bring attention to social issues they claim to care about. Just like many other Twitter users, celebrities are trying to reach a wide audience, hoping that their words and images get amplified when other users share their posts.

After collecting celebrities’ tweets, we looked at how often they were retweeted — paying special attention to those that mentioned a political candidate. We compared the number of retweets when celebrities took political stances to the number of retweets for their usual lifestyle tweets. With that, we could analyze whether political content was punished or rewarded with more or less attention. For each celebrity, we calculated the extent to which the retweets of their political comments deviated from the average number of retweets that celebrity usually received.

Political tweets attract attention and engagement

In a result that might surprise Jordan, we found that celebrities’ political tweets are more popular than their safer, apolitical tweets. In particular, tweets that explicitly mentioned Trump, Clinton or Sanders received on average 763 retweets, while tweets on other topics by celebrities received on average 732 retweets. In fact, tweets about candidate Trump from Democratic-leaning celebrities on average received 1,011 retweets.

To be sure, some fans surely soured on individual celebrities’ politics. But on social media, the implicit deal between celebrities and their followers appears to be that the celebrities entertain for free while the followers reciprocate by freely publicizing the celebrities’ thoughts and otherwise staying engaged. If that’s so, talking about politics works well for celebrities. Large numbers of users engage with and re-share political content from celebrities.

These celebrities were not timid about scorning or praising politicians.

So what political views were celebrities tweeting? The average Democratic-leaning celebrity devoted between 0.5 and 0.6 percent of their tweets to their favored candidate. About three times as often, they attacked Trump — giving Clinton free negative advertising against her opponent.

Interestingly, celebrities were unafraid to produce both critical content about the candidate they opposed and positive advertising for their preferred candidate.

This calculation worked, at least for the celebrities in our sample. Whether their comments were negative or positive, celebrities were usually rewarded for political tweeting with more than the usual amount of retweets.

Because we analyzed only tweets from those celebrities who endorsed one of the presidential candidates in 2016, our sample consists mostly of Democratic-leaning influencers on social media. Still, our research suggests that celebrities who endorsed Donald Trump benefited from tweeting about politics as well.

Caveats

When American celebrities involve themselves in an election campaign, they can damage their brand by alienating up to half the country. The damage might be even larger if they offend a large nation that makes up roughly one-sixth of the planet with opinions about Hong Kong — or on the flip side, when they alienate much of the United States for bowing to a foreign power’s censorship. When weighing in on international politics, the scale of potential rewards and punishments can be orders of magnitude larger — and so our analysis may not apply.

Further, we studied only online behavior. Virtual activity like retweeting may not matter to celebrities quite as much as real-world spending on albums or sneakers. But at least during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, celebrities could win more social media attention with their political views than with more anodyne thoughts.

Jan Zilinsky (@janzilinsky) is a PhD candidate in the New York University department of politics and a research associate at the NYU Center for Social Media and Politics.

Cristian Vaccari (@prof_vaccari) is a professor of political communication and co-director of the Centre for Research in Communication and Culture at Loughborough University in the U.K.

Jonathan Nagler (@jonathan_nagler) is a professor of politics at New York University and a co-director of the NYU Center for Social Media and Politics.