DESPITE the implosion of social media, I still get all my news online. I start the day with podcasts from National Public Radio; later on, I follow up with a science or tech podcast when I go out for a walk. I read newspapers and magazines on my desktop computer throughout the day. All of which is to say that I cannot go online to do my job as a writer without also getting inundated with the latest terrifying images and stories from the wars in Gaza and Ukraine.
It hurts. The facts hurt, the disinformation hurts, the knowledge that both conflicts could lead to a much bigger war hurts. It feels like I have more agency over what is happening if I get news updates every hour. At the same time, I want to shut it out. I seek other kinds of media that will distract me so thoroughly that the wars recede for a moment. Perhaps that is why I recently spent so long following the very online saga of movie stars Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith.
Both are huge celebrities associated with big science-fiction franchises: Will Smith was in, among other things, the Men in Black movies and Independence Day; Jada Pinkett Smith had standout roles in the Matrix franchise and the Batman series Gotham. They are sort of action-sci-fi royalty for nerds like me. But Pinkett Smith also has a second career as a reality TV star, helming a weekly streaming show on Facebook called Red Table Talk with her daughter and mother.
For five years, Red Table Talk revelled in radical family honesty, featuring a lot of awkward moments as the Smith family sat at the eponymous red table and worked through infidelity, gender issues, intergenerational squabbles and more. It was classic online influencer content, full of performative confessions that felt messily intimate, yet also precisely tuned to keep the family in the public eye.
Facebook cancelled the show in April, but that wasn’t the last we would hear about the Smiths’ public/private lives. Earlier this month, Pinkett Smith released her autobiography, which contained a bizarre bombshell. It turned out that she and Will Smith hadn’t been a couple since 2016. That meant Red Table Talk‘s entire run was based on a fake relationship between the two. The raw realness was just theatre. Of course, I know that reality TV isn’t real and that many celebrities have PR relationships to gin up interest in their work. Still, this seemed like an extreme example – a long game without any payoff.
I dived into this gossipy fluff as I tried not to click on the wars. I wasn’t the only one – Pinkett Smith’s revelation made international headlines. But why was this fake celeb marriage such a potent distraction from real news? As podcaster Brittany Luse explained on It’s Been a Minute, PR relationships take place within webs of political and economic intrigue. Luse described how Taylor Swift’s new relationship with American football player Travis Kelce helped change search engine results on her name. Some fans had been outraged by how much pollution Swift was generating with all her private jet trips. But after she attended a New York Jets game Kelce played in, searches on “Swift jet” all returned gossip about the couple rather than reports of her private jet use.
Swift’s new relationship distracted audiences from focusing on how their favourite singer is helping to destroy the environment. Obviously, it doesn’t hurt that any kind of romance makes headlines, too. The same goes for high-profile break-ups like those of the Smiths. After all, the more people pay attention, the more money celebrities stand to make – and Pinkett Smith has a book to sell.
Still, there are patterns to the way we pay attention to media that aren’t dictated by Machiavellian PR schemes. Sometimes, we manipulate ourselves. I went down the celebrity gossip rabbit hole because I wanted to optimise the search engine of my own mind, to find results about dysfunctional movie stars rather than violent military action. After reading timelines of the war in Gaza, I read timelines of the Smiths’ fake marriage. There was an astonishing structural symmetry to media accounts of both – twists and turns, fake-outs and blow-ups.
The overall effect was that everything I read online took on a surreal, fictional quality. It was both soothing and toxic, like drinking too much cough syrup. I clicked through more and more pictures of Pinkett Smith, looking into her perfect face, wondering why she had lived a lie for so long and what she had got out of it. I didn’t click on the war. I clicked on pictures of Pinkett Smith’s alleged boyfriends, and then rewatched a clip of her as the badass Niobe fighting evil robots in The Matrix Revolutions. I didn’t feel better.
Still, for a few minutes, I didn’t click on the war.
What I’m reading
Premee Mohamed’s novella And What Can We Offer You Tonight, about an undead courtesan fighting for justice.
What I’m watching
The season finale of Star Trek: Lower Decks, the best Star Trek series on right now.
What I’m working on
A syllabus for a media studies class I’m teaching next year.
Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author. Their latest novel is TheTerraformers and they are the co-host of the Hugo-winning podcast
Our Opinions Are Correct. You can follow them @annaleen and their website is techsploitation.com