The Rise of the Key Opinion Leaders: the End of Politics?





In ancient Japan, the “kagemusha” (shadow warrior) was an impersonator who took the aspect and the role of the actual leader. The kagemusha was simply a decoy to be used in battle while, in our times, the problem for leaders is not so much to deflect bullets and arrows but to deflect the much more powerful propaganda techniques that may easily destroy them in terms of their prestige and influence. The result is the rise of a new kind of kagemusha, the KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders). The KOLs do not impersonate the true leaders, but express their ideas and plans in public, taking the blame for the failures and the mistakes that may result. The KOLs operate in many fields, not just in politics. For instance, they are popular in science. But, their presence in politics is becoming more and more evident. 

I personally met one top-level KOL (key opinion leader) in my career. In 2005, I was organizing a conference on energy sponsored by the Tuscan Regional Government. They insisted on inviting Jeremy Rifkin, who had become a popular figure in the debate after he had published his “The Hydrogen Based Economy” in 2001. I disagreed, but they were those who paid for the conference, so we had to invite him. Rifkin wanted $10,000 as a fee, a first-class plane ticket, and VIP treatment. He got all that in exchange for a talk of about 45 minutes which he said nothing new or especially interesting. He took no more than a few questions, giving vague answers, then he disappeared, leaving for another conference. He didn’t even stay for the speaker’s dinner.   

That was at a time when the KOLs were still relatively rare — I think the acronym didn’t even exist. But, over the years, the term is becoming common, even though the term “influencer” remains more frequent. Normally, the term KOL is applied to fashion and performing arts. You see in the image a typical example.

But there exists a line of KOLs operating in science. The ancestor of them all was probably Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), who was remarkably famous in the 19th century. More recently, Carl Sagan (1934–1996) was a new incarnation of the KOL scientist. His book “Cosmos” sold some 5 million copies. But both Von Humboldt and Sagan were real first-class scientists. They were so good at whatever they did that their effort in popularizing their ideas didn’t harm their work in scientific research.

Unfortunately, that’s not true for everyone. The problem is not so much the time needed for the effort. It is that the scientist who takes a few steps into the media, soon discovers that there is good money to be made there. Much more money than what an average scientist can even dream of. Then, they discover that the more time they can dedicate to the media, the more money they can make. Soon, the show takes the prevalence over the lab. And that’s the end of one’s career as a scientist. (*)

A good example of this trend is that of Neil deGrasse Tyson, the popular TV astrophysicist. His record as a scientist has been examined by Emil Kirkegaard. He is not an impostor, he did some good work in astrophysics in the 1980s and the 1990s. But, since then, he has not been actively practicing science anymore. He is one of the “Kardashians of Science,” using Kirkegaard’s definition. People whose popularity with the general public far surpasses their ranking as scientists. But don’t misunderstand me: I think that Tyson has been doing a good service for science. This is especially true because the field he works in does not move a lot of money, so corruption is not such a bad problem. But that’s not always the case. 

Corrupted KOLs are an enormous problem in those fields where science is used to push products into the market. As you may easily imagine, the situation is especially bad in medicine. On this, you may read the book by Peter C. Goetsche “Deadly Medicine and Organized Crimes.” (2013). Goetsche is a somewhat controversial figure for his radical stance on several subjects, but his description of the behavior of the KOLs is both stunning and realistic. That’s the way they behave, I can tell that also from my personal experience. They are in for the money, there is little else that matters to them. They may have been good scientists but, at some moment, they switched to the dark side, being paid to promote the products that the industry sells.

How much are the KOLs paid? Of course, that depends on rank. Some KOLs are true superstars and the money they can make is beyond even the imagination of an ordinary scientist. I already told you about the fee that Jeremy Rifkin mustered in 2005, today it must be much more, especially for in medicine. We don’t have precise data: of course, much of the money provided by the industry for the KOLs is shrouded in consultancies, teaching fees, honoraria, and various perks (conferences in fashionable resort places, for instance). But it is surely a lot of money. As an example, for years, Tony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was the highest-paid government employee in the United States with more than $400,000 per year. And he surely had additional sources of income.  In Italy, the fee of a middle-level virologist, Ilaria Capua, was reported to be $2000 per ten minutes of a TV interview. More famous virologists surely make more. 

Now, stop for a moment and think of what all this means. Imagine yourself interviewed on TV: you are paid $200 per minute (could be much more) for just a few minutes. What are you going to say? Chances are that what you’ll say will be a concise, clear, and unequivocal version of what you are expected to say by those who pay you. No time for subtleties, no time for mentioning alternatives, no time for mentioning the complexity of some fields. If you have more time, say, you give a talk at a scientific meeting, then you are also paid much more. Then, will you want to say anything that displeases your sponsors? It is not a surprise that KOLs use the strategy of the pieceworker: they move from one conference to another, trying to cram as many speeches per day as possible.  They know that their career may be short: if the product they are paid to sell goes out of fashion, they will be summarily dismissed and they will have to go back to their work as humble rank-and-file scientists. 

All that is about the role of KOLs in science and it is bad enough by itself. But science is not independent of politics, as you know. During the COVID crisis that started in 2020, the public was suddenly exposed to a complex and difficult topic that they had never seen before: they were told about statistical data, such things as mortality, lethality, herd immunity, and much more. In the great confusion, they tended to rely on familiar figures that looked trustworthy and who played the role of the KOLs. Tony Fauci was by far the most visible of them in the US, followed at some distance by figures such as Rochelle Walensky and Francis Collins. They justified and promoted whatever the government thought was a good idea to do. The government, in turn, acted following the advice of these and other KOLs, who were promoting the products of the pharmaceutical industry. Science, KOLs, and money were an unholy mix that created immense damage. But so goes the world. 

The KOLs may now be spilling directly into politics. The first actor to become a high-rank politician was Ronald Reagan but he was not just an actor playing the politician. He surely used his acting experience to enhance his image and communicate with the public, but he had his own ideas and priorities. He was far from being a “puppet president.  In recent times, though, we are seeing actors becoming frontmen for figures who remain backstage. A good example is Vladimir Zelensky. Independently of what you think of what’s happening in Ukraine, Zelensky is clearly acting. He is playing the role of the president of a beleaguered country. The way he dresses, the short beard, the posture, all are part of a character that could have starred in a movie, except that the war in Ukraine is all too real. In the picture, you see also the French President, Emmanuel Macron, who may have tried to copy Zelensky’s warlike style. 

So far, Zelensky seems to be a relatively isolated case. It is understandable that he is playing the kagemusha role, considering how dangerous the job of the president of Ukraine is today. But it is possible that the KOL fashion will spread to other countries and other leaders. As an example, I can cite Mr. Matteo Salvini in Italy. As the leader of the League, he became deputy prime minister in 2018. He has a non-zero chance to get the full job in the coming Italian elections of 2022. 

Salvini is popularly known as “Captain Nutella,” owing to his penchant to present a public image of himself while eating junk food. This style gives you a certain feeling about the intellectual depth of the person. He never was an actor, but he started his career as a participant in a TV game show and he does not have much more than that in his professional CV. Incidentally, I have the impression that Zelensky took Salvini as a model for his character of the president; same beard, same style of dressing in sweatshirts, same populist rhetoric. Not the Nutella, though. 

I would not be surprised if Salvini, or some other equally shallow kagemusha character, will soon take the job of the prime minister of Italy. What is going to happen this winter is a serious crisis where many Italians will find themselves without home heating, fuel, electric power, and jobs. At that point, the Nutella will hit the fan, as they say, and the job of the prime minister may become as dangerous in Italy as it is in Ukraine. Then, the really powerful people may prefer to take a low-profile role. 
So, are we going to have KOLs as leaders everywhere?  The trend is surely visible. But, if you are worried about the end of politics, I can reassure you. In my personal experience, and I have personally known several high-ranking politicians in Italy, they are not actors playing the role of the evil character. They are really evil! And, KOLs or no KOLs, they’ll continue ruling us. 


(*) On a personal note, my career as KOL was nipped in the bud when I was invited to speak about nuclear energy in a debate on a national channel in 2010. It was a time when the Italian government had big plans for new nuclear plants. The people who had invited me had noted that I was involved in peak oil studies and, from that, they must have deduced that, since I was against fossil fuels, I had to be favorable to nuclear energy. During the debate, I mentioned the problems of the availability of mineral uranium, and I mentioned the “uranium peak.” Immediately, they cut me off, just like that. I disappeared from the screen and the debate went on without me. And they never invited me again. Had I been a little smarter, I could have made some money by becoming a nuclear shill, but so it goes.

Originally appeared on The Seneca Effect Read More



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