POV: Before You Decide to Keep Up with the Kardashians, Consider This | BU Today

The names are familiar: Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, and Kris Jenner. You can’t avoid them, even if you really want to. Celebrities’ posts appear in our Instagram and Twitter feeds, and their latest activities appear in our news. Yet, celebrity gossip isn’t just gossip—not in an age of reality television, social media, and misinformation.

Reality television and social media make it hard to discern what’s real in our media environment. Most of us know that reality television shows are highly edited, with producers, editors, and even writers involved. But we don’t necessarily know which parts are edited—the same way it can be hard to know if an Instagram photo has been edited, even if we’re pretty sure it was.

Recent research I did at Boston University with a team of colleagues from Ohio State University shows the consequences of this blurring between entertainment and reality. We showed 312 participants one of two clips from Keeping Up with the Kardashians. We focused on an episode from season 11, in which Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney Kardashian, along with their mother, Kris Jenner, have genetic testing done. Half of our participants watched a 12-minute clip directly from the show; the other half watched what we called a “high accuracy version,” where we cut out all of the incorrect information that had originally aired.

All of our participants took an initial knowledge test about genetic testing. After viewing the low accuracy (original) version of the Kardashian clip, we saw that people actually lost knowledge on genetic testing. There was a drop in scores from before viewing the show to after viewing it, which indicated to us that they now knew less about genetic testing than before watching the show.

It’s a consequence of viewing something that appears “real,” but that has been edited for dramatic effect. The Kardashians want us to feel like we have a front-row seat to their lives; what is more personal than health information?

It isn’t real. Yet, people in our study took it as real and lost knowledge as a result. And this goes beyond television: this yearning for reality translates to their wildly popular social media presences. Kim Kardashian is one of the most followed people on Instagram. A quick glance at any given post, and you’ll see numerous people trying to get a response from Kim, taking that front-row seat a step further than the television allows.

It’s not just this consumption and interaction in television and social media that matters, though. We’ve grown accustomed to celebrities as part of our culture—a culture where we take them seriously. The Kardashians get genetic testing done, so I should, too. And, really, what’s the harm in encouraging women to take a superfluous medical test, suck on a lollipop to lose weight, or wear sustainable clothing that, well, isn’t?

Because this perceived celebrity access transcends into new, worrisome spaces when we see actions like those of Kanye West, Kim’s ex-husband and a hip-hop star, turn hateful.

In the past, Kanye suggested slavery was a choice and called the COVID-19 vaccine “the mark of the beast.” More recently, he’s shared blatantly anti-Semitic social media posts and claimed that the Jewish community is hurting his career.

Kanye has a massive platform with massive impact over his fans, so such claims often will be taken as fact by many of his most devout followers. Currently, fans have started a GoFundMe to help Kanye re-achieve his billionaire status.

If reality television makes a narrative appear real, what does that same content do when it is produced for our smallest screens, when the images appear alongside content from friends and family members? We scroll almost mindlessly across many channels; we don’t think as hard about what the content is. We have to stop our mindless scroll to consider the consequences of the content in front of us.

Celebrities perpetuate the echo chamber that has created such divisiveness in this country, even if they don’t mean to. It’s made worse when they create and share misinformation—about health, about politics, about social issues.

These people have massive influence in our lives—but we have to remember that they are people, too. We have to look beyond the “celebrity” to truly understand the content they create and share—like we would do with anyone else we follow.

Kathryn Coduto is a College of Communication assistant professor of media science. She can be reached at [email protected].

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact John O’Rourke at [email protected] BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.