Why TikTok Users Are Blocking Celebrities

Why TikTok Users Are Blocking Celebrities

As protests over the war in Gaza unfolded blocks away, last week’s Met Gala was largely devoid of political statements on the red carpet. That the organizers of fashion’s most powerful annual spectacle (one for which tickets cost $75,000 this year) achieved this feat proved surprising to many observers. Less than two weeks later, though, a fast-growing online protest movement is taking shape. At least, it is on TikTok, the social media platform that was a sponsor of the Met event.

Blockout 2024, also referred to as Operation Blockout or Celebrity Block Party, targets high-profile figures who participants feel are not using their profiles and platforms to speak out about the Israel-Hamas war and wider humanitarian crises. Here’s what has happened so far, what supporters hope to achieve and why it all began.

The criticism began on May 6, when Haley Kalil (@haleyybaylee on social media), an influencer who was a host on E! News before the event, posted a TikTok video of herself wearing a lavish 18th-century-style floral gown and headdress with audio from Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film “Marie Antoinette,” in which Kirsten Dunst proclaims, “Let them eat cake!”

The clip (for which Ms. Kalil later apologized and which was deleted) was viewed widely. Given the current global conflicts and humanitarian crises, critics described it as “tone deaf.” Then posts emerged comparing ostentatious costumes worn by celebrities on the Met red carpet to scenes from “The Hunger Games,” in which affluent citizens in opulent outfits wine and dine while watching the suffering of the impoverished districts for sport.

Images of Zendaya, a Met Gala co-chair, spliced with photographs of Palestinian children, incited the online masses. A rallying cry soon came from @ladyfromtheoutside, a TikTok creator who found inspiration in Ms. Kalil’s parroting of Marie Antoinette.

“It’s time for the people to conduct what I want to call a digital guillotine — a ‘digitine,’ if you will,” she said in a May 8 video post with two million views. “It’s time to block all the celebrities, influencers and wealthy socialites who are not using their resources to help those in dire need. We gave them their platforms. It’s time to take it back, take our views away, our likes, our comments, our money.”

“Block lists” of celebrities thought to be deserving of being blocked were published and widely shared online.

The movement is made up of pro-Palestinian supporters who have been assessing the actions and words of A-listers in order to decide if they have adequately responded to the conflict. If they have said nothing or not enough, the movement calls for those supporting Gaza to block that celebrity on social media. What constitutes sufficient action by the famous person — be it calls for a cease-fire, donations to aid charities or statements — appears unclear and can vary from celebrity to celebrity.

“Blockout” supporters argue that blocking is important because brands look at data on the followers and engagement of influencers and celebrities on social media before choosing whether to work with them to promote a product. Blocking someone on social media means you no longer see any posts from the person’s accounts, and it gives the blocker more control over who has access to their own updates and personal information. It can have more impact than unfollowing a celebrity account because many product deals thrive on targeted ads and views that can accumulate even if a user simply sees a post, without liking or sharing it.

If enough people block a content creator, it could reduce the creator’s ability to make money. Also, adherents of this thinking say, why follow someone whose values don’t align with yours?

Attendees with huge followings, like Zendaya, Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner, have been at the top of the chopping blocks. But so have celebrities who didn’t attend the gala this year, including Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez.

Vogue, which according to Puck News published 570 Met Gala stories on its platforms and recorded more than a billion video views of content from the night, has also been targeted because of its ties to the event.

“The Met Gala is by far and away Vogue’s biggest cash cow,” Elaina Bell, a former Vogue employee, said in a TikTok post with 850,000 views. She explained that the event sold sponsorships “based on the data of past events,” adding, “How the Met Gala is seen is so important to the bottom line of Vogue specifically but also to Condé Nast.”

It certainly raised some eyebrows. The dress code was “The Garden of Time,” inspired by the J.G. Ballard short story of the same name. It’s an allegorical tale about an aristocratic couple isolated in their estate of fading beauty harassed by an enormous crowd preparing to overrun and destroy the space. Rather on the nose.

Yes. Some posts say the blockout is a negative example of “cancel culture.” Others suggest that, like other social media-led movements, it is digital posturing that generates little meaningful change.

Some argue that celebrities do not have a duty (or the awareness) to speak out on complicated geopolitical issues, and they question why it matters what famous people think about those issues, anyway. Others feel the movement has blurred parameters, given that some A-listers, like Jennifer Lopez and Billie Eilish, have previously shown support for a cease-fire in Gaza but are being punished for not speaking up now.

Several stars on the widely circulated block lists, including Lizzo and the influencer Chris Olsen, posted their first public videos asking followers to donate in support of aid organizations serving Palestinians. Blockout supporters have also worked to “boost” celebrities who have recently spoken about the conflict, like Macklemore, Dua Lipa and The Weeknd.

According to metrics from the analytics company Social Blade, many names on block lists have lost tens or hundreds of thousand of followers per day since the “digitine” began. But murky claims that stars like Kim Kardashian have lost millions of followers are unsubstantiated.

Will more A-listers start speaking out on the red carpet as a result of the lists? It is too soon to tell. But for frequent users of TikTok, the brand aura of the Met Gala is being profoundly altered. And while social-media-led boycotts are by no means unprecedented, this latest movement is a clear example of the growing power of creators to redistribute or even weaponize ​platforms that are cornerstones of a modern celebrity-centric — and capitalist — system.