The role of social media in blurring the line between celebrities and traditional experts

The idea of a lone consultant becoming, in three short years, more influential than entire university departments of Ph.Ds., is indicative of a new level of potential for celebrity in health messaging.

(Khamis, Aug, & Welling, 2017, p. 204)

Traditionally, experts and celebrities have been thought of as existing in markedly different spheres of public life, which are linked to very different sets of values and logics (Lewis, 2010). Whereas experts and expertise were seen as synonymous with ‘modes of rational knowledge and techniques of social organization that accompanied the rise of the modern state’, celebrities were typically seen as ‘со-extensive with popular and consumer culture, with a mediatized public sphere where entertainment is privileged over information, affect over meaning’ (Lewis, 2010, p. 581). Rousseau (2015) argues that, in the realm of lifestyle media, the concept of expertise has been radically reconfigured along more popular lines, so the relationship between the celebrity and the expert is no longer marked by hierarchies, or a distinction between popular and consumer culture and the professional/governmental realm.

The increased media coverage of celebrity chefs has played a key role in their emergence as new contemporary food experts (Barnes, 2014). The fact that they are continuously on television screens, social media and bestseller lists gives celebrity chefs ample opportunities to place themselves, and be placed by the media, as powerful players (Barnes, 2014; Goodman, 2010; Guthman, 2007, 2008). New media allow regular people to broadcast their everyday food practices (De Sober, 2018). This importation of daily social experiences into the online domain across different social media platforms has further blurred the boundary between the private and the public, in turn both contributing to, and coinciding with the birth of the new lifestyle expert. De Sober (2018, p. 63) discusses the rise of the ‘amateur foodie expert’ and their new food media in relation to traditional media - first in the form of bloggers (versus professional journalists), and more recently YouTube cooks (versus traditional TV chefs). The focus of our chapter is on slightly different - though related - development: the evolution of a ‘traditional chef’ with an established brand and visibility on ‘old media’ to an amateur nutrition expert on a new media platform.

Recent research confirms that celebrities indeed function as a significant driving force behind the new diet-based communities online. Ramachandran et al. (2018) assessed the most ‘liked’ Facebook pages in Australia that made recommendations on healthy eating for their alignment with the Australian Guideline to Healthy Eating (AGHE). Of the nine pages analysed, only two fully aligned with government guidelines, while the rest deviated from AGHE in some way -either through direct contradiction, misinformation, or overly restrictive recommendations (Ramachandran et al., 2018). In addition, the four most popular pages (Michelle Bridges 12 Week Body Transformation; Jamie Oliver; Pete Evans; and I Quit Sugar) were hosted by celebrities. The implications of this research are clear. Facebook is a powerful tool for disseminating information, but currently the most popular content skews towards non-traditional experts, echoing Rousseau’s (2015) sentiments of‘data-free celebrity science’.

This new transformation of celebrities into experts in their own right has been a global phenomenon. However, this is far from a homogenous space. The UK’sJamie Oliver, for instance, exemplifies a more conventional trajectory from a career as a traditional chef, to subsequently moving on to television - first with the purpose of demonstrating cooking to audiences, but gradually politicising his mission to influence healthy eating habits. In 2005 Oliver launched the Feed Me Better campaign aimed at changing the food eaten by school children and was subsequently voted as the ‘Most Inspiring Political Figure of 2005’ (BBC News, 2006). Oliver has since moved on to spearhead numerous other food activism campaigns internationally, including Ministry of Food.

While Oliver operates ‘with’ the existing systems of governance, Vani Hari, aka ‘The Food Babe’ in the US, illustrates another type of development in the food influencer arena. Hari describes herself as a ‘revolutionary food activist’ even though by her own admission, she has no qualifications in human nutrition (https:// In 2011 Hari started her blog,, based on her experiences of becoming sick as a result of eating a ‘typical American diet’. Hari’s main mission is to challenge ‘big business’ and enable her audience to ‘experience a richer sense of health’ by ‘assimilating the information’ on She frequently mobilises her followers, whom she refers to as ‘The Food Babe Army’ to target big companies, and lists numerous ‘accomplishments’ on her website as the companies respond to the consumer pressure. The accuracy of Hari’s health claims and fears have been widely challenged by scientists such as the analytical chemist Yvette d’Entremont (2015), yet she has established a significant following (as of 20 March 2019, Hari had over 1.2 million ‘likes’ on Facebook | Hari, 2019]) and authored best-selling books of health advice.

Goodman, Johnston and Cairns (2017) argue that to understand this production of food knowledge we need to look at the role and creation of truth discourses, and the truth claims at the heart of contemporary foodscapes. One significant concern here is the fact that, at present, there are no regulations about the claims concerning food and nutrition that celebrity chefs can make. Social media enable celebrities to control the message, while their audience may be entirely made up of fans who choose to follow them (Johns & English, 2016). They can present food-based information at odds with the information given by institutions regulated by government. Consequently, when arguably powerful celebrities such as Pete Evans or Vani Hari present information as facts, they are not held to the same standards of truth/evidence as official bodies such as the Dieticians Association of Australia (DAA), or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US.

Of course, these ‘truth discourses’ are not a totalising force, but rather sites of frequent contestation and conflict (Goodman et al., 2017). Barnes (2014) found that the different ways in which audiences talk back to chefs can also create moments of resistance. However, we must note here that not all social media are created equal, as all platforms have their unique logics and rules for interaction. While followers on platforms such as Twitter can respond to ‘bad’ information, and act as a ‘swift correctional resource’ (Rousseau, 2012b), on other platforms, such as Facebook, the moderator of the page can control who gets to participate in the discussion, thus creating an echo chamber that is harder to penetrate.

Media and technology have been key factors in shifting perceptions and attitudes about nutrition during the last 50 years (Vaterlaus, Patten, Roche, & Young, 2015). Research has shown that around 80 per cent of all internet users aged 18-46 go online for health information (Lohse, 2013) and social influencers are a primary factor in the adoption of health behaviours (Centola, 2013). More specifically, work on eating disorders suggests that social media contribute to an echo-chamber effect, where people believe their values are more common than they actually are, because they selectively view contributions by similarly minded people (Turner & Lefevre, 2017). The prospective wide reach of potentially dangerous health information through online channels has seen professional nutritionists demand ‘best practice’ industry guidelines to ensure quality control, but the nature of social media currently defies such containment (Tobey & Manore, in Khamis et al., 2017).

Information overload is also crucial, with consumers increasingly bombarded with messages about what to eat from multiple sources. In the social media landscape, audiences’ attention is scarce and short-lived and boundaries between public and private, professional and amateur and newsworthy and Instagramworthy constantly shift; so, there is extraordinary pressure for the content to be attention-grabbing (Rousseau, 2015). Indeed, in a world where the boundaries between personal and public are blurring at a dizzying speed, it is easy to imagine a follower (misinterpreting information presented on social media as a method approved for public practice (Rousseau, 2012b). The problem here is that the need to stand out may contribute to the circulation of hyperbole and misinformation, thus further confusing audiences about which sources are trustworthy. The most pessimistic accounts of this ‘attention economy’, where expertise becomes conferred with celebrity status and popularity, describe the phenomenon as the ‘death of expertise’ (Collins, 2014; Nicholas, 2014; Rousseau, 2015).

At the same time, acquiring the status of an expert and influencing everyday food practices is not only contingent on media coverage, but also on the ability of chefs to appear accessible, ‘real’ and authentic to their audiences, downplaying their celebrity status (Barnes, 2014; Johnston & Goodman, 2015). The role of social media in creating online communities plays a crucial role here, as ‘food activists often try to exploit the community dimension to affect the market dimension’ (Sinischalchi & Counihan, 2014, p. 10). Social media enable celebrities to present themselves in a more personal way, increasing connection with the audience, and socialising with like-minded individuals provides opportunities for open communication, in turn contributing to feelings of trust.

However, while traditional television chefs may have been used for brand endorsement, the celebrities themselves now are the brand they are selling to audiences (Johns & English, 2016). As such, food celebrities now embody both cultural and material dimensions by being the key voices of cultural and culinary authority, but also, simultaneously, being embedded in the political economies of media production, food marketing and creation (Johnston & Goodman, 2015).

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