Image: Gwyneth Paltrow / TIFF 2012 from Michael Mayer's Flickr Photostream

Social media is a powerful tool in health related campaigning and the latest high profile campaign to gain momentum on the twittersphere involves celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow.  She is taking part in the New York food challenge organised by chef Mario Batali in aid of Food Bank NYC (#foodbankNYCChallenge). This involves people attempting to live on the same amount of money for food shopping per week as the 1.7 million New Yorkers on food stamps (averages out around 29 US dollars or 20 GBP). We are thus invited to ‘to walk in the shoes’ of these New Yorkers for seven days to help:

end hunger in the state; to challenge others to try and live off the small amount of money; and to help put pressure on America’s Congress to redress the cuts that have been made to New Yorkers’ food stamps, now known as SNAP.

Paltrow is a controversial figure and currently best known not for her acting but rather her role of celebrity lifestyle guru. Her carefully curated aspirational weblog regularly features expensive ‘must haves’ that appear to draw a clear divide between her life and those of her readers. As soon as Paltrow tweeted an image of the contents of her $29 food shop she was swiftly subjected to ridicule, accused of being condescending and even indulging in ‘empathy chic’. The beautifully photographed goods included a dozen eggs, a pack of black beans, a pack of rice, kale, peas, an onion, an avocado, a tomato, garlic, tortillas, a chilli, lettuce, corn, spring onion, coriander, one sweet potato and seven limes.  The coriander and seven limes were highlighted as being particularly self- indulgent.

Paltrow was accused of making inappropriate choices which were also dangerously low in carbohydrates for those living on low incomes. This specific shopping basket would mean that Paltrow would be consuming less than 1000 calories per day which is well below recommended levels to maintain health:

people who live on [food stamps] don’t just have to get nutrients, they have to get actual calories, because they tend to have very physical lives, doing service labour and taking care of children and not necessarily being able to afford a car and so forth.

Food insecurity is complex and the result of social and economic factors which need to be addressed by policy initiatives that can speak to these. It would seem near impossible to achieve an understanding of structural inequalities via social media campaigns and perhaps we expect too much. Campaigns that involve ‘walk in their shoes’ are popular and can raise enormous awareness, funding and help mobilise petitions for change but for many critics Paltrow’s involvement in the campaign is of little value except to reveal her privilege.

Having said that we might also ask if there are positive outcomes for matching causes and celebrities that appear at first glance to be incompatible. Regardless of how people feel about Paltrow and her motives it remains clear that this is a clever campaign. At its heart lies the unique power of social media – the concept of ‘sharing’.

Participants are encouraged to share their experiences by using the hashtag which can be traced across twitter, facebook and Instagram. Paltrow’s involvement has certainly generated tremendous ‘traffic’ which is not something that every health campaign can achieve.  Indeed a study of social media breast cancer prevention messages found that there were not many ‘conversations’ generated as a result and that ongoing social media conversations require strategic communications involving celebrities to drive the conversation and to avoid twitter being used as a ‘one way communication tool’. Campaigns that focus on sharing experiences seem to have particular benefits in forging connections and writers in the US have highlighted the potential positive aspects of these sorts of campaigns where public figures share their experiences daily with their huge online following via social media.

These challenges support their cause and reach wide audiences and perhaps that is sufficient because:

The point is not to offer an authentic experience, but to plant a seed of personal connection between serious issues (food insecurity, homelessness) and those whose wealth, power, and resources shield them from those issues. That personal connection can grow into advocacy, donations, or even simply a powerful (and free) marketing tool from the media it generates—resources that most nonprofits are perpetually hungry for

Social media connects public figures and their online followers in distinct ways and health related campaigns that work tend to involve people in creating information for themselves rather than just receiving or distributing messages. Paltrow had the grace to admit that she lasted just 4 days on her limited provisions  but whatever our feelings are towards these celebrity figures and their levels of altruism or personal gain there is little doubt that our endless speculation online inciting praise or protest helps to increase the numbers of conversations on social media concerning various causes and this may in turn help to bring about social change.