On May 30, 2018, President Trump tweeted a picture of himself in the Oval Office with Kim Kardashian West captioned, “Great meeting with [Kim Kardashian] today, talked about prison reform and sentencing.” The internet quickly grabbed ahold of this unexpected interaction and created a slew of related memes, particularly aiming commentary at the fact that the president of the United States not only met with a celebrity, but one who is commonly accused of being famous for doing nothing but having starred in a sex tape. This article seeks neither to endorse nor condemn the Kardashians and their empire (though it certainly seems that their fame has arisen, if not from talent, then at from least extreme business savvy), but to examine the influence of these social media moguls outside the realm of fashion and internet culture. This interaction between Kardashian West and Trump was remarkable in two ways: one, because though it seems absurd for a reality T.V. star to have a face-to-face policy meeting with the country’s leader, Trump himself has roots in reality T.V. The other important element of this interaction is the fact that, just a week after meeting with Kardashian West, Trump commuted the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a woman convicted of and imprisoned for a non-violent drug offense in 1996. Kardashian West had been vocal on social media about Johnson’s case, and according to Trump’s tweet, the meeting included discussion of Johnson’s predicament. We can only assume that Kardashian West convinced the president to commute the sentence handed down over two decades ago—and this is not the only recent instance of celebrity and social media influence on convicted inmates and criminal proceedings.
Three different cases in which defendants’ stories received social media attention demonstrate this trend and its efficacy: the cases of Alice Johnson, Cyntoia Brown, and Adnan Syed. These examples differ vastly in most aspects, except for the fact that all three concern defendants of color who were convicted for and served long sentences until their stories gained media traction—and all three have either had their sentences commuted or their trials reopened. Mass incarceration in the U.S. receives disturbingly little attention: according to the N.A.A.C.P., while the U.S. only makes up 5 percent of the global population, its prisons hold 21 percent of the world’s prisoners. The N.A.A.C.P. also reports that black people are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than white people. If black people and Latinos were incarcerated at the same rates as white people, prison populations would drop by almost 40%.  Though these three cases make up an infinitesimal part of the incarcerated population of our country, the celebrity and social media influence on the fates of Johnson, Brown, and Syed have seemed to drive a movement recognizing and rectifying the racism of the justice system. The question is, is it ethical or helpful for social media and celebrity influence to push government legal reform?
Alice Johnson’s story is perhaps the most relevant to this question because it has the most direct connection between celebrity involvement and government action. Johnson, now a 63-year-old grandmother, was convicted in 1996 of a low-level, first-time drug offense and sentenced to life in prison without parole.  The A.C.L.U. promoted Johnson’s case, among others, to draw attention to the problem of mass incarceration, and her plight drew the attention of Kardashian West. Johnson had already served over 20 years before Trump granted her clemency. The White House released a statement on the commutation, commenting that “[w]hile this Administration will always be very tough on crime, it believes that those who have paid their debt to society and worked hard to better themselves while in prison deserve a second chance.”  Other members of Trump’s administration directly oppose this type of commutation—for example, in 2017, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to prosecute criminal defendants to the harshest extent possible. The dramatic merciful shift in Johnson’s case demonstrates that perhaps the clemency issued by Trump had less to do with his policy and more to do with Kardashian West’s involvement and the potential media coverage of such an action.
The A.C.L.U. was also involved in making Cyntoia Brown’s case go viral, and Kardashian West was not the only celebrity who advocated on her behalf. Brown was sold into sex slavery as an adolescent and was convicted of first-degree murder at the age of 16 after shooting a man who had bought her for sex—her sentence was life without parole. A P.B.S. documentary about her story was released in 2011, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown started trending. Many celebrities, including Kardashian West, Rihanna, and Cara Delevingne, expressed horror and sympathy at her situation via social media. Kardashian West even hired her a lawyer—the same lawyer she hired to work on Alice Johnson’s case. On January 7, 2019, Tennessee governor Bill Haslam announced that Brown would be eligible for parole at the beginning of August.  Brown had already served almost 15 years in prison, and the announcement of her release sparked social media celebration from even more celebrities: Padma Lakshmi, Jada Pinkett Smith, Ijeoma Oluo, and more. The movement for justice for Brown had been active since even before the 2011 documentary, but the lawyer Kardashian West hired and the extensive social media attention may have been the final push that changed the governor’s mind.
The third case differs from the first two but adds relevant nuance to the discussion: in 2000, Adnan Syed was convicted for murdering his ex-girlfriend who had gone missing the year before. His case was relatively unknown until W.B.E.Z.’s record-breaking podcast Serial brought it to an international, captivated audience. The podcast’s host, Sarah Koenig, investigated Syed’s case through weekly episodes. The series doesn’t have a conclusive ending—Koenig points out the lack of physical evidence and witnesses in Syed’s conviction, and in reviewing the court proceedings, there is also certainly racist language used against Syed, who is Muslim and of Pakistani descent.  In June of 2016, Syed’s conviction was overturned on the grounds that his lawyer provided ineffective legal counseling, and he was granted a new trial. The trial has been held up amid legal red tape, but eventually Syed’s case will be reexamined. In 2018, H.B.O. announced that it would produce a docuseries about Syed’s case, most likely to be released in 2019. Serial won critical acclaim for chronicling Syed’s story, and it ruled the iTunes charts in 2014.  The massive media attention may do for Syed what it did for Brown and Johnson—though obviously the cases are different. Syed may have the chance to prove he didn’t commit the crime he was convicted of and punished for, while Brown and Johnson received sentences that were arguably too harsh for the crimes committed. Still, the element of social media attention was instrumental in legal effort to reexamine Syed’s conviction, and it is possible that jury opinion may be swayed to judge him less harshly–and perhaps without the same racial bias as in the original trial.
It is common to hear disparaging comments about the impact of social media on the world: on culture, music, art, and even politics. In this scenario, however, it seems more appropriate to praise social media for its ability to create—or at least, encourage—change in ways that previously seemed impossible. While it is disheartening to see that our president can be swayed by celebrities to make decisions completely out of character for his administration, these decisions are part of the process of undoing centuries of injustice. In the cases of Brown and Johnson, Kardashian West, a wealthy white woman, used her privilege to advocate for those hurt by a system stacked against them. The criminal justice system is undeniably racist, and people like Brown, Johnson, and Syed are already at a disadvantage purely because of their ethnicity. Without the intervention of people who use their privilege for the benefit of others, their cases may have not received the same kind of attention nor the same (mostly positive) resolution. Still, these three instances are not enough to make up for the huge number of people wrongfully imprisoned or harshly sentenced, often based on race. For every instance like Johnson’s sentence being commuted, there are innumerable others convicted for similar reasons who remain imprisoned. If Kardashian West can convince Trump to institute actual criminal justice and prison sentencing reform, that would obviously be preferable to this case-by-case celebrity justice. There are some celebrities who have gone beyond case-by-case social justice and actually promoted institutional change—-for example, Ashton Kutcher co-founded Thorn, an anti-sex trafficking organization, and even delivered a speech at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting on the subject.  Still, Kardashian West’s individually focused actions and the influence of Serial’s depiction of Adnan Syed’s story demonstrate that celebrity and social media influence can used for good—and though hopefully institutional change will follow, this strategy seems to be a good place to start.
Latest posts by Amelia Campbell (see all)
- An Ounce of Prevention: Why Utah Needs Comprehensive Sex Ed - March 20, 2019
- The Specter of Guatemala’s Dirty War - March 12, 2019
- Kim Kardashian West and Sentence Commuting: Criminal Justice in the Social Media Age - February 16, 2019
- Too Many Angry Men: Jair Bolsonaro and Strongman Politics of the 21st Century - December 10, 2018