Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: The Perils of Hollywood’s Reckless Social Media Posts

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From left: Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson; John Krasinski; Evangeline Lilly; Vanessa Hudgens

In times of crises, fame can be a valuable platform for mobilization and inspiration, but COVID-19 has rewritten the rules, and too many famous faces need to stop and think before they post.

During past natural disasters, many celebrities had been able to insulate themselves from danger by climbing aboard a private jet and zipping off to somewhere safe. There, from a comfortable distance, they were able to tweet emotional support to jetless fans. COVID-19 has changed that dynamic. As we read about famous people contracting the virus — among them Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Idris Elba and Andy Cohen — and others dying from it, such as playwright Terrence McNally, actors Mark Blum and Andrew Jack, and jazz musician Wallace Roney, it’s clear that there is no insulating from danger for anyone. Perhaps because of the imminent threat, stars’ public response has been much more engaged. Some have been inspiring, some funny, some tonal head-scratchers — and some actually harmful to public health.

Many celebrities have risen to the challenge, donating money, encouraging safe behavior from the public, even entertaining us. John Krasinski started Some Good News, a home-based YouTube show that features news stories focused on the positive. Cardi B’s impassioned and melodic rant to her 61 million Instagram followers to take coronavirus seriously may be one of the most effective PSAs around. Dolly Parton donated $1 million toward finding a cure for the coronavirus. James Taylor donated $1 million to Massachusetts General Hospital. Billy Joel, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Selena Gomez, Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively and many others are donating money, meals and more. Their commitment is sincere and touching.

But there are also missteps. It’s important to remember that medical wisdom changes daily, and behavior a celebrity might publicly endorse one day will seem horrific the next. Evangeline Lilly shared a defiant Instagram post (2.3 million followers) on March 16 announcing that, despite President Trump declaring a national emergency three days earlier, "Just dropped my kids off at gymnastics camp. They all washed their hands before going in. They are playing and laughing." Naturally, there was a vehement backlash, and at first she held her ground, suggesting the virus was just a political ploy: "Don’t abuse this moment to steal away more freedoms and grab more power." Basically, the kind of nonsense rants you’d expect to find scrawled on a cardboard sign on a freeway off-ramp. Ten days later, she apologized while assuring everyone that she and her family were self-quarantining.

On March 16, Vanessa Hudgens told her 38.7 million Instagram followers in a live stream, while applying makeup, that estimates that the outbreak might last until July sound like "a bunch of bullshit." Her estimate, based on her vast knowledge of pandemics, was, "Like, I dunno, I think it’ll last, like, a month?"

She added: "It’s a virus, I get it. Like, I respect it. But at the same time, like, even if everybody gets it, like, yeah, people are going to die, which is terrible but, like, inevitable?" Despite her contrived and pandering middle-school sleepover-speak, Hudgens is 32. Like Lilly, she faced an angry backlash and apologized. Still, how many of those 38 million followers, emboldened by her dismissal of the virus, spent the next 24 hours going out, getting infected and infecting others? Death may be inevitable, but did it require her help?

The same day Lilly and Hudgens made their initial comments, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) encouraged people not to self-isolate: “One of the things you can do if you’re healthy — you and your family — it’s a great time to just go out, go to a local restaurant. Likely you can get in easily.” Unlike Lilly and Hudgens, he was not only unrepentant but on March 31 — the same day Trump and the CDC forecasted the possibility of 240,000 deaths, even with social distancing lasting until June — Nunes complained: “The schools were just canceled out here in California, which is way overkill. It's possible kids could've went [sic] back to school in two weeks to four weeks, but they just canceled the rest of the schools.” He just undermined the administration, the CDC and all medical experts — to 3.4 million viewers. It’s a distinct possibility that such reckless and uninformed comments could result in some people taking government guidelines less seriously and causing more illness and deaths.

Some celebrity response is way out of step with the severity of our situation and the daily struggles people are enduring just to eat and keep a roof over their heads. Billionaire producer David Geffen posted a photo of his 454-foot super-yacht, Rising Sun, with the caption: "Sunset last night … isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus. I’m hoping everybody is staying safe." Justin Timberlake, who has donated generously to the food bank in Memphis, posted a photo to his 58.5 million Instagram followers of his wife, Jessica Biel, and a dog in a beautiful snowscape with the caption: "Out here social distancing with the fam and a lot of these [tree emojis]. I hope you guys are staying safe and healthy. We need to stick together and look out for each other during this crazy time." To many people in a small space with their whole family or multiple roommates, or standing in line to buy toilet paper, that photo doesn’t feel like we’re all in it together. Celebrities shouldn’t be ostracized for their wealth, but they should be sensitive enough not to rub it in the faces of the fans who enabled that fortune.

The most dangerous and insensitive celebrity of all is former Celebrity Apprentice host and current president of the United States. On March 29, when we had 2,500 deaths from the coronavirus, Trump tweeted about what mostly occupies his mind: “President Trump is a ratings hit. Since reviving the daily White House briefing Mr. Trump and his coronavirus updates have attracted an average audience of 8.5 million on cable news, roughly the viewership of the season finale of The Bachelor. Numbers are continuing to rise ...” While the numbers of the dead are rising, he’s giddy about his ratings. At the same time, many news outlets are debating whether or not to carry his briefings live because, according to doctors and health officials, he has “repeatedly delivered information that doctors and public health officials have called ill informed, misleading or downright wrong.”

Like it or not, stars with their millions of followers do have the power to affect the course of this pandemic by what they say. Which is why it’s crucial that while they’re self-isolating, they also need to be self-editing. Saying "we’re all in this together" is easy; proving it is the challenge.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.