Is this what happens when you start with Twitter?

19 Jan

You begin by trash-talking justifiable targets like Donald Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, branch out into meeting movie stars, and end up back in jail?

images.jpeg It’s a question Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman might well be asking himself at this very moment.

Following his headline-making escape from a maximum security prison last July, the diminutive drug lord accrued more than half a million Twitter followers, enjoying his occasional insults to people most Mexicans don’t like anyway.

But the fame seems to have gone to head. He started thinking that what he really needed was a movie made about his life, and got in touch with Mexican actress Kate del Castillo. She, in turn, got Sean Penn to come along with her on a trip to one of El Chapo’s jungle hideaways so he could write an article about it for Rolling Stone.

Now Mexican justice authorities are suggesting that El Chapo’s yen for fame, not just notoriety, contributed to his capture earlier this month. That clandestine visit with the stars apparently played some role in giving police, according to the New York Times, “the break they needed: actionable intelligence of his specific location.”

The truth is, I myself have consistently wondered if I too should be on Twitter. After all, I have just published a new book, and could use the publicity. Twitter, I guess, is one way to get publicity although I’m still not quite sure how.

But I do recognize that tweeting and celebrity-dom are somehow entwined. Not only can you follow your favourite celebrities’ thought processes via their tweets, but you are, in a sense, a sort of celebrity yourself if you are on Twitter, if you can boast vast crowds, or even small crowds, of anonymous followers.

All of which has got me pondering the very nature of celebrity. After all, El Chapo is already well known as a larger-than-life character who controls a vast empire of crime and death, and has earned gazillions in the process. He’s got a beauty-queen wife, a legion of gun-toting minions, and sway over a considerable number, no doubt, of Mexican politicians.

And it’s interesting how Penn himself, along with his 11,000-word article underscores that celebrity power.

His article, as Joel Simon points out in the Columbia Journalism Review, “was not an interview and certainly not a piece of investigative journalism. It fits more neatly into another journalistic genre: The celebrity profile. Penn’s story is an exercise in myth making that for the most part lets El Chapo tell his own story.”

The context is important here. Mexico is a dangerous place for journalists who question and illustrate the extraordinary damage to Mexican society by its combination of unaccountable politicians and unassailable drug cartels.Way too many of them have paid with their lives.

However Penn’s article was, first of all, mostly about himself – naturally. He’s a celebrity too. But he also shied away from asking Guzman hardball questions about the consequences of what he does for a living, and even had the magazine send him a prior copy of the article to make sure he was okay with everything.

This is probably normal for celebrities. When I approached Penn’s organization in Haiti for my book about aid, I was told I had to sign a similar agreement before they would consider allowing me into the Internally Displaced Persons camp he was running in the Pétion Ville Golf Club. (In the end, I signed it, but never did pass on what I wrote before publication.)

Our obsession with celebrities, as opposed to the newsworthy, seems to have opened up an increasingly ample definition of what the term even means. It has provided an ever-broader platform to the talentless and unremarkable, people who have nothing worthwhile to offer, not even entertainment value. And in the case of El Chapo, quite simply a violent cartel boss with no idea of the harm he and his ‘business competitors’ are causing.

Maybe El Chapo is now regretting his desire to clamber onto this platform. Maybe he is seeing how fame can also be a two-edged sword. As the pathetic images of him post-arrest inspire everything from piñatas to popular social media jokes, he seems to have very quickly gone from being an unlikely counterculture icon to a figure of ridicule.

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