Life&Style Writer Eleanor Bergin discusses the role played by influencers in aiding the Australian bushfire crisis, questioning their motives in light of today’s public image-obsessed digital age

Written by Eleanor Bergin
Final Year English Literature and German Student Print & Features Editor
Last updated
Images by Korng Sok

Due to one of the country’s worst droughts in decades, the Australian bushfires have led to the destruction of over 2,000 homes, the degradation of 7.3 million hectares of land and half a billion animals have been affected. The catastrophe has seen many social media influencers and celebrities take advantage of their position by raising awareness of the issue, in a plea to draw engagement and shed light on the devastating effects of the bushfires. In the midst of the climate emergency, are celebrities under an obligation to use their platforms for good?

Over the last month a range of celebrities including Australians such as Kylie Minogue and Margot Robbie, as well as other well-known stars including Elton John, Selena Gomez and Pink have donated significant amounts of money in aid of the Australian bushfire crisis. In particular, actor Chris Hemsworth posted on his Instagram, ‘Like you, I want to support the fight against the bushfires here in Australia. My family and I are contributing a million dollars. Hopefully you guys can chip in too.’ His kind donation drew in comments such as ‘Huge respect sir,’ ‘So generous,’ and ‘hearts of gold.’ There seems to be a common theme that many have taken to social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram to announce their pledge to aid the Australian bushfires. This, however, begs the question, is this about publicity? Is it necessary for influencers with large follower bases to be raising awareness around the issue, or is there a PR-infused vanity project element whereby their motive actually revolves around playing up to a perfect celebrity image?

Do these influencers and their audiences actually understand the crisis or are they just donating to following the crowd?

Kylie Jenner also sits among the list of notable celebrity donations with a reported $1.5m being put towards the cause. Although many have praised her for this donation, other reactions have been more hesitant to applaud her. Before she announced the donation, she and the rest of her family were criticized for not doing enough to help considering their loud, fan-hungry platform. This leads us to question whether Jenner was pressured into making the donation in the first place. Is this obligation faced by influencers justified considering their strong voices, or should you only have your say on a situation that you deeply care about? Those in a position of power on social media have young audiences who will often be informed about vital issues in the world. Do these influencers and their audiences actually understand the crisis or are they just donating to following the crowd?

Other celebrities are taking a different approach to highlight the issue. For example, actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge is auctioning off the suit that she wore to this year’s Golden Globes.

Vlogger Alfie Deyes, with his 3.9 million Instagram following, has also joined the discussion, releasing a t-shirt in which all profits will go to the Australian Red Cross. However, Alfie has not dodged criticism. A twitter user argued, ‘Surely you are better off starting a charity fundraiser on a website or promoting one that exists rather than selling a £25 T-shirt where £5ish goes to charity?’ Of course, Alfie had only good intentions when creating this product, but perhaps a more useful approach would be a direct donation to a charity of one’s choice. With everyone having their say on the matter, it seems as though there is a demand for all celebrities with a following to have an impact and say on the issue, no matter how big or small.

We cannot deny the sheer power that they have in enhancing impactful movements

This demand was showcased at the 2020 Golden Globes, with a room full of today’s most influential celebrities, including many award acceptance speeches commenting on the devastation of the crisis. However, actor Joaquin Phoenix used his speech as an opportunity to give his opinion on the way in which celebrities have been voicing their concerns up until now, saying ‘It’s really nice that so many people have come up and sent their well-wishes to Australia, but we have to do more than that.’ In a plea for celebrities to think more conscientiously, he continued, ‘We don’t have to take private jets to Palm Springs for the awards sometimes.’ Conveniently, the producers started to play him off the stage. Admittedly his speech had been going on for a while, but perhaps this brings to light the larger issue of celebrities fearing offending or being too political in these more conservative situations. Celebrities have indeed been under fire for using private jets in the past, including Harry and Meghan, having a negative impact on the environment. Joaquin admits he is apart from the issue, but raises a poignant and relevant debate on how celebrities use their spotlight, questioning how much of an impact they truly have.

Whether or not influencers are donating money for the right reasons, or whether they are simply following what the current ‘trend’ states in order to elevate their image, we cannot deny the sheer power that they have in enhancing impactful movements. We, as ordinary people, can donate whatever we can afford, but if we want to allow major changes then it is the people with the financial means who can make a real difference. Seeing the unity of people across the globe coming together in support of the Australian crisis can only be a positive and welcoming sensation in hope of protecting the country’s environment.