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The Lessons of the One Direction #FreePalestine Tweet

Zayn Malik
Zayn Malik of One Direction performs at on May 24, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland. Dave J Hogan—Getty Images

One Direction's Zayn Malik has learned — as have others before him — the dangers of mixing celebrity and conflict

Usually when One Direction and the phrase “death threats” are in the same sentence, it’s a case of overenthusiastic fans defending their favorite pop stars — but the group’s Zayn Malik has learned that the backlash can go in the other direction too.

On Sunday, the singer tweeted the phrase “#FreePalestine” — a tweet that’s been both retweeted and favorited over 200,000 times, while it’s also led some of his own fans to lash out at him, death threats and all. He’s not the first to experience blow-back over the topic:

  • Earlier this month, a similar message from Rihanna led her to delete the tweet within minutes of posting it. The singer claimed to have tweeted in error, having clicked a tweet link on a website.
  • Basketball player Dwight Howard followed a similar script the same week, adding that he’s never commented on international politics.
  • Cricket player Moeen Ali has been banned by the International Cricket Council from wearing “Save Gaza” and “Free Palestine” wristbands.
  • Scarlett Johansson‘s dual roles as Oxfam ambassador and SodaStream spokesperson caused controversy that led her to tell the New Yorker felt like she was “put into a position that was way larger than anything I could possibly—I mean, this is an issue that is much bigger than something I could just be dropped into the middle of.”
  • Back in 2012, Kim Kardashian tweeted that she was “praying for everyone in Israel” and subsequently that her prayers were also for Palestine, and then later deleted both tweets, explaining on her blog that she was sorry to have offended anyone on either side.

So one possible takeaway from Malik’s experience, and those before it, is that celebrities should just keep their mouths shut when it comes to Israel and Palestine — especially when even Secretary of State John Kerry has trouble being diplomatic about the issue.

No matter what one thinks about Israel, it’s hard to deny that (a) the subject is controversial, and (b) Twitter (or a symbolic accessory, or a product endorsement deal) isn’t exactly a great place to express a nuanced thought about a complicated topic. Case in point: celebrities aren’t the only ones who’ve found that to be true. Even the Associated Press has experienced the pitfalls of tweeting about Gaza, having decided to revise a tweet that seemed to express negative judgment about U.S. lawmakers who support Israel. In a time when people like Malik and Rihanna have a direct line to their legions of fans, they’re all one click away from saying something they don’t really mean, or saying something they think they mean but haven’t really thought through. Safer, then, not to say anything. If the point of being a celebrity is to please fans, it’s pretty clear that Tweeting about Israel is not the way to do it.

On the other hand, Malik’s #FreePalestine tweet was followed by silence. He hasn’t responded to any fans, he hasn’t apologized and he hasn’t deleted what he said. So maybe “#FreePalestine” was really what he meant, with all its possible connotations and consequences. There’s no evidence to suggest otherwise.

Which means that the other possible takeaway is that maybe pleasing fans isn’t actually what celebrities care about most, and that asking them to be quiet about their opinions is an unrealistic expectation. In that scenario, they’re not different from any other Twitter users in that they can say whatever they want — and in that, when other users disagree, they’ll hear about it.

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