By Todd Spangler
LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - Donald Trump's rise on the national stage was fueled by Twitter, letting him circumvent the mainstream media by tweeting directly to his 12.6 million followers.
By the same token, in this election year unprecedented numbers of celebrities are using the tools of internet video and social media to voice their unfiltered political leanings -- which, generally speaking, have been against Trump and for Hillary Clinton.
In past election years, popular actors and musicians stumped for their favored candidates on the campaign trail. For example, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, Gwyneth Paltrow and Scarlett Johansson were among those supporting Barack Obama in 2012 with in-person appearances.
That's still the case today, but increasingly celebs have been using YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other platforms to express their political viewpoints, either humorously or earnestly. The latest anti-Trump salvo to go viral: Kathy Griffin's F-bomb-laced parody of the Clinton campaign's "Mirrors" ad. The original spot shows a series of girls and young women combined with audio of Trump's derogatory comments about women. In the 42-second spoof, Griffin tells Trump how she feels in no uncertain terms about his misogynistic remarks.
"Seriously, f-- off, Donald," Griffin says at the end of the clip. The video, posted Tuesday, racked up more than 300,000 views on YouTube comedy channel A Brit and a Yank in 24 hours.
Griffin's video is part of a massive shift in the way information about politics reaches U.S. voters. From March to September 2016, internet users globally racked up 3.8 billion views on YouTube alone related to Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump or their campaigns, according to video-technology and analytics firm Zefr. And 99% of that content did not originate from the campaigns themselves or traditional news outlets.
"The reality is, the distribution of these messages is essentially free now. You can listen to an accredited journalist -- or the kid down the street," said Eric Goldman, VP of product at Zefr. "That access to the information really changes who has access to mass communities. There's no editorial committee in the middle."
To be sure, TV remains a standard-bearer of the political zeitgeist. Alec Baldwin's merciless portrayal of The Donald on "Saturday Night Live" stands out as one of the few parodies that Trump has expended effort to complain about. "SNL's" sketches about Trump-Clinton debates have generated tens of millions of views online, while late-night TV shows like "Jimmy Kimmel Live," "The Late Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" and John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight" have all made digital hay out of the political season.
But outside the confines of traditional media, the internet is providing fertile soil for politically inclined stars to make themselves heard -- virtually instantly -- without any gatekeepers.
On Monday, Joss Whedon's political action committee Save the Day (to which the writer-director-producer has contributed $275,000) released a video in which Keegan-Michael Key plays a weatherman giving an apocalyptic vision of a future under President Trump. It has pulled in more than 400,000 views on YouTube in two days.
Through election day, Whedon plans to deliver about three videos weekly aimed at mobilizing young voters with a mixture of humor as well as warning about a Trump presidency. He said he is willing to spend $1 million on the effort -- "and I am willing to go over budget on this one."
"Our mission is to say, not just vote, but to lighten the mood a little bit," Whedon said. "There's also an opportunity to laugh about something, other than think of how much you hate the other person."
A host of others from the TV and film world have joined the digital fray. For example, an ad for the Clinton campaign directed by Lee Daniels featured the stars of Fox's "Empire," including Taraji P. Henson, denouncing Trump and urging viewers to vote for Hillary. "What will I tell my son?" Henson asks in the spot, released Oct. 5 on YouTube. "What will you tell your daughter? What will we tell the future generation?"
The list of celebs engaging in digital political advocacy includes actress Olivia Wilde, who posted the Clinton campaign's "Mirrors" video on Twitter with the comment, "As someone who is about to have a daughter, this hits me deep in my core. #NeverTrump." Johnny Depp skewered Trump earlier this year in Funny or Die's "The Art of the Deal." J.K. Rowling tweeted that "Voldemort was nowhere near as bad" as Trump, sharing an article about people that likened the GOP candidate to her uber-villain.
Singer Carly Simon granted permission to pro-Clinton super PAC Patriotic Artists & Creatives to use her 1972 hit "You're So Vain" in an anti-Trump spot on YouTube and Facebook. She also re-recorded one line, "your face it was apricot," for the ad from producers-directors Jon Vein and Fred Goldring.
And Robert DeNiro, in a video produced by Anonymous Content that was distributed to media outlets, said he would "like to punch (Trump) in the face."
In addition, there's the Filmmakers for Hillary coalition, co-founded in August by indie producer Tanya Selvaratnam, which is working with 90 creators to produce short-form shareable content to promote her candidacy and get out the vote. The 30 Days, 30 Songs website -- dedicated to a "Trump-free America" -- plans to release one song per day from Oct. 10 until Election Day, with participation so far from artists including Aimee Mann, Death Cab for Cutie, Franz Ferdinand and R.E.M.
The Clinton campaign has also used digital channels to spread its message. Hillary Clinton last month appeared on Funny or Die's "Between Two Ferns" hosted by Zach Galifianakis. The video was viewed more than 30 million times in the first 24 hours, surpassing Obama's appearance on the show.
Hillary's appearance with Galifianakis was an attempt to get in front of digital-native millennials, akin to Bill Clinton going on the "The Arsenio Hall Show" in 1992, said Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
"If younger voters are high priority for the Clinton campaign, which they are, they're going to look for every conceivable channel and alternative press to reach that group of people," he said. "It would be malpractice to do otherwise."
Ultimately, the friction of creating a piece of content expressing an opinion is virtually nonexistent with the power of platforms like smartphones, says Goldman: "Just one individual with a massive audience can review a candidate and command the attention of millions of people."
That makes the power of digital influencers especially significant. YouTube star Casey Neistat, who has 5.5 million subscribers, appeared on video to say he's voting for Clinton in a video posted last week. "I avoid talking about politics on this channel, this forum, because politics are divisive," he said. "But... this is about a megalomaniac who is driven by nothing but ego. A man who cares exactly zero about the people of this country."
Neistat also called on other YouTubers to come out in support of Clinton, despite the inevitable backlash, noting that the top 20 YouTube creators generate more than 1 billion views every week.
"With younger Americans being the least likely to vote, YouTubers encouraging their fans to go out and vote could sway the results of the election," said Brendan Gahan, founder of social-media agency Epic Signal. "With great power -- the ability to reach millions -- comes great responsibility, and I think that's something that creators like Neistat recognize and take very seriously."
Not everything that's been popular in the political digital stew is designed to support one candidate or the other -- some of it's purely entertainment. After the second Clinton-Trump debate on Oct. 9, according to Zefr, one of the most-viewed videos overall was a mix of the candidates on stage made to appear as if they were singing "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" from "Dirty Dancing," created by Dutch website Lucky TV.
Ted Johnson and Daniel Holloway contributed to this report.