Ariel Foxman and Kerry Washington discuss social media at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, on March 13, 2016.
Sherrell Dorsey/The Root

Kerry Washington’s social media presence is enviable. Boasting more than 3 million followers on Twitter, the Scandal star’s ability to consistently engage fans online has proved a powerful boost to ratings and viewership for the show, as well as added visibility to other projects she’s embarked on in her rise to A-list status.

“I know to this day, without social media, we wouldn’t have had a second season and now be in our fifth,” she admitted during a Sunday-morning session, “The New Rules of Social Stardom,” at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.


Washington joined Ariel Foxman, editorial director of InStyle and People StyleWatch magazines, for a conversation on how the actress has adeptly leveraged her online presence to promote not just her show but also women’s stories and the voices of women of color.

Her interest in social media, she said, is akin to her interest in fashion—it’s an extension of what she does. Gaining more exposure as an actress has amplified opportunities to share and discuss issues of interest to diverse audiences.

Foxman brought up a 2015 issue of InStyle, on whose cover Washington’s photo appeared to have been lightened. Social media provided a forum for conversation, and the response was rooted in the historical context of the challenges of colorism. Because of the online outcry, best practices for the magazine could be altered for the future.

“Early on in getting endorsements, I walked away from opportunities that wanted me in the room but not at the table,” she said. “If a brand doesn’t understand that I’m a political activist, then they should probably look elsewhere […] I don’t work with companies that don’t want me for my voice.”


As a longtime brand rep for Movado watches and Neutrogena (she admitted that before she was signed, there wasn’t a foundation dark enough for her skin tone), Washington revealed how endorsement opportunities challenged her to think critically about her role in advancing women’s issues and ensuring that her work reflects characters that are multidimensional and multifaceted.

Washington called social media and the Internet “the great democratizer.”

“Because I am a woman and a person of color, when I’m in the leading role, it’s an activist moment,” she explained. “We live in a world where not everyone gets their stories told. Having diverse voices heard, acknowledged and incorporated into standard practices is the beauty of social media.”


Sherrell Dorsey is a social-impact storyteller who started coding at the age of 14 and now speaks and writes frequently on the intersections of sustainability, technology and digital inclusion. Follow her on Twitter.