Twenty-two years after his first of six Oscar nominations, 2016 was finally Leonardo DiCaprio's year. With his leading role in The Revenant (2015), he finally got to go on stage to receive his award. He clearly deserved the Oscar for Best Actor according to the audience, judging from the long standing ovation he received. For the film, the actor swam through ice-cold rivers, crawled through the snow and – even though he normally doesn’t eat meat – ate raw bison liver. DiCaprio, a well-known activist, used his word of thanks to warn people of climate change. He used his experience creating The Revenant to raise awareness: 'Our production needed to move to the southern tip of this planet just to be able to find snow. Climate change is real, it is happening right now. It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating.'
Leonardo DiCaprio is currently seen as one of the most famous and active celebrities when it comes to raising awareness about climate change. But even though he is very popular online, he is also criticized for his actions. How does DiCaprio present himself as an activist, and how do people respond?
Leonardo DiCaprio has been active in the climate change movement for quite some time. In 1998, he established his foundation, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, starting his mission to protect the world’s last wild places. As the website states, ‘LDF implements solutions that help restore balance to threatened ecosystems, ensuring the long-term health and well-being of all Earth’s inhabitants.' Through public campaigns, media initiatives and grantmaking, the foundation wants to bring attention and funding to six different program areas, all related to the environment. DiCaprio was designated as the United Nations Messenger of Peace for Climate Change and in 2014 he received the Clinton Global Citizen Award. In addition to his foundation, he also serves on the board of several environmental organizations: the Natural Resources Defense Council, the World Wildlife Fund, Oceans 5, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and National Geographic’s Pristine Seas.
The actor also uses his Instagram to raise awareness. All of his posts are dedicated to recent environmental issues or events as well as to his foundation.
The figure above shows 9 of the most recent (re)posts on his Instagram page. These posts are dedicated to the Amazon fires, the Turtle Survival Alliance, the Australian bush fires and the endangered koalas, and more. His Twitter page mostly consists of retweets related to environmental issues, and his Facebook page is full of articles that warn people about climate change. It could be said that DiCaprio smartly uses his fame on social media to change the world for the best.
What makes Leonardo DiCaprio such an important and famous activist is the fact that he is “on message”. For Michael Silverstein and Michael Lempert, the term 'message' does not only refer to 'communication about issues so much, but also what one communicates about his or her identity and personal values through selectively taking up some issues and avoiding others' (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012). Through becoming identified with environmental issues, for example, one acquires a persona as an activist. DiCaprio is thus not only communicating himself as an actor, but also as an activist. In fact, he clearly uses most of his social media communication to construct that activist persona: he focuses specifically on climate change and environmental issues, and this is visible on his social media pages. As also seen above, DiCaprio’s social media mostly consists of articles, news and warnings about issues like forest fires and global warming. Because of this consistency in what he posts and what he stands for, he creates an abstract portrait of identity that audiences can imaginatively experience.
DiCaprio’s activism can reach a way bigger audience thanks to his celebrity status and his massive social media following.
What might be an advantage for DiCaprio is that he acquired most of his fame through his acting. When it comes to contributing to message, being a celebrity becomes a great asset in the realm of political life in several aspects. For example, US Presidents, both as candidates and incumbent, have often sought to have celebrity personalities nearby as this would enhance their star-like qualities. DiCaprio’s activism can reach a way bigger audience thanks to his celebrity status and his massive social media following.
But this seemingly rich and luxurious lifestyle also receives some criticism. For example, DiCaprio was criticized because of his use of private jets and yachts. After he called out climate change deniers at the Global Citizen Festival in New York, some users responded to The Hollywood Reporter's article on his use of a private jet with pictures of him having a good time on his yacht, or him coming out of his jet.
DiCaprio's seemingly hypocritical behavior also became a meme. As seen below, pictures of him from his acceptance speech at the 2016 Oscars and from The Great Gatsby (2013) were accompanied by text exposing his actions.
Since there are fewer passengers on a flight with a private jet than on a commercial flight, flying in a private jet is indeed more wasteful and more damaging for the environment considering the plane's carbon emissions. Therefore, people see flying in a jet as hypocritical coming from DiCaprio, who so often brings up the importance of the issue of global warming and climate change. His identity, who he is and what he does, has an impact on the effectiveness of his activism. He is not being criticized for his stance on environmental issues, but for his private behavior. As a result, the audience disregards his message.
Others, however, seem to still support DiCaprio and his activism, and believe that he truly cares about the environment.
But the discussion about DiCaprio's activism does not end there. Climate change deniers also have opinions on the famous activist. On the subreddit r/climateskeptics, members often comment on the actor's actions as seen below. The comment section of the subreddit is often ruled by such criticisms. DiCaprio himself has issued a response to climate change deniers at the Global Citizen Festival: "...Yet, surprisingly, some have reacted to this movement with insulting tweets and negative talking points - individuals that seem to care more about profit and their own self-interests than about your own future." He added that "unless you live in alternate reality, there is no more time for denial."
Even though he receives a lot of criticism for some of his actions, DiCaprio remains consistent in his posts about the environment. His portrait of identity that others can imaginatively experience differs. One person might believe and trust him for what he says, while others only think of him as hypocrite.
Activism on social media
Social media plays a big part in Leonard DiCaprio's activism. The actor does not only inform people through his social media accounts, but he often encourages his followers to sign petitions and take action by retweeting. Phrases that are often seen across his Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are ‘Join us!’ and ‘Take action now’. Not only his tweets but also his retweets are focused on changing the behavior of others, and inspiring them to take action against climate change. DiCaprio appears to want to create a movement formed from the people that he can reach online.
Modern media have always constituted a channel through which social movements not only communicate, but also organize their actions and mobilize their constituencies (Gerbaudo, 2012). Paolo Gerbaudo argues that social media have had an important impact on social movements. Their main contribution has been at the level of the creation of a ‘choreography of assembly’; that is, a process of symbolic construction of public space, which revolves around an emotional ‘scene-setting’ and ‘scripting’ of participants’ physical assembling. This practice is seen in the use of social media in directing people towards specific protest events, in providing them with suggestions and instructions on how to act, and in the construction of an emotional narration to sustain their coming together in public space.
The term ‘choreography’ indicates that the process of this symbolic construction of public space is not entirely spontaneous or leaderless. Gerbaudo (2012) stresses that social media must be understood as complementing existing forms of face-to-face gatherings as they are a vehicle for the creation of new forms of proximity and face-to-face interaction. Through such big platforms, activists can reach people all over the world.
In September 2019, DiCaprio encouraged people globally to 'join the fight for a livable planet and #strikewithus' through the Instagram post above. Through this action, he aimed at choreographing an offline assembly through social media.
In some ways, social media can be seen as the contemporary equivalent of what newspapers and leaflets were for the labor movement in the 19th century. Those media did not only convey abstract opinions but also shaped the way in which people came and acted together. Some would argue that, compared to older media, social media are making our lives easier and making our communication faster and better. This view is also exemplified in Paul Mason’s account of contemporary activism: 'one fact is clear: people know more than they used to … they have greater and more instant access to knowledge, and reliable ways of counteracting disinformation' (Mason, 2012). However, with the circulation of fake news and conspiracy theories nowadays, this view might be seen as too optimistic.
A critical view of the influence of social media on contemporary social movements comes from scholar Evgenyi Morozov. Morozov has talked about the risks of ‘slacktivism’, or activism for slackers. For Morozov, slacktivism is feel-good activism that has zero political or social impact, but creates an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without putting in a lot of effort. It has become a term to describe the turn to 'armchair activism' that increasingly relies on social media and/or consumerism. A common example of slacktivism is the action taken on June 26, 2015, when same-sex marriage was legalized across the US. Many Facebook users and celebrities applied a rainbow-colored filter to their profile pictures—among them Leonardo DiCaprio. The use of Facebook likes, hashtag campaigns, and the reposting of photos on Instagram constitute other common slacktivist strategies (Day, 2017).
DiCaprio often reposts videos and photos on Instagram instead of creating his own posts. Even though Leonardo DiCaprio is in many cases seen as a true activist considering the financial resources he devotes to activist causes, this activity on Instagram can be seen as a form of online slacktivism.
As a famous actor, Leonardo DiCaprio appears to devote a lot of work to activism online and offline. His Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation has been active since 1998, and now his activism has spread to social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. But not everyone seems to be supportive of this. Even though many people support him and his foundation, he has also received a lot of criticism. Critiques come not only from the people who deny that climate change is real in general, but also from people who simply think his behavior is hypocritical: next to his public activism, he still uses a private jet and a yacht that emit CO2 into the air.
DiCaprio does not appear to give much thought to these critics on social media since his online message remains consistent. These social media platforms are important for his activism to encourage and inspire others. However, since DiCaprio often reposts others, there is an element of slacktivism in his online presence. His social media behavior is contributing to a discursive battle for meaning, where he tries to normalize the idea that we should act and that there truly is such a thing as climate change happening right now. While this adds to his online persona and message, his personal behavior undermines the impact of his engagement in that discursive battle for meaning. In this digital age, where social media has a very significant influence on our lives, the online image, presence, and identity of activists (like those of politicians) are becoming more and more important. DiCaprio seems to know this despite the fact that his lifestyle often contradicts his general message.
Day, A. (2017). DIY Utopia: Cultural imagination and the remaking of the possible. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.
Gerbaudo, P. (2012). Tweets and the streets. Social media and contemporary activism. London: Pluto Press.
Lempert, M & Silverstein, M, (2012). Creatures of Politics: Media, Message, and the American Presidency. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Morozov, E. (2011). The Net Delusion. How not to liberate the world. Penguin books.
Silverstein, M. (2003). Talking politics: the substance of style from Abe to "W". Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.