Influencers are an important access point for brands and consumers. Photo credit: KaikaTaaK.
Detox teas, waist trainers, hair vitamins, and shoes…. According to some social media celebrities, these products will make consumers slimmer, taller, more youthful and — according to other influencers — they’ll also make them terribly sick, or even shit their pants.
Influencers — which the Merriam Webster Dictionary defines as those who “generate interest in something…by posting about it on social media” — are a fairly new phenomenon born out of the age of the internet. But their addition into our cultural lexicon is much more powerful than doctored images of an ideal lifestyle. They highlight conversations about the social ills of our society, influence our purchasing decisions, and on an intimate level, cause shifts in our understanding of mental health.
No matter which corner of the internet these influencers are birthed from, the expansive nature of their audience reach is felt everywhere.
Transformation: how Twitter Became the Pulse of Black Lives Matter
In 2013, #BlackLivesMatter first seeped into public consciousness and picked up traction as the hashtag moved through the channels of Twitter.
For many, the violent death of Eric Garner on July 17th, 2014, ignited a new era of social media’s power to spread information and manifest social awareness. As the movement grew, catalyzed again by the recent death of Breonna Taylor on March 13th, and George Floyd on May 25th, 2020, conversations about the role that social media platforms and influencers play has also shifted.
Platforms like Twitter played an integral role in the spread of information surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, according to research titled Social Media Participation in an Activist Movement for Racial Equality.
The study analyzed 28 million tweets, and mapped out Twitter participation throughout different geographical locations as the movement spread.
“[…] Twitter emerged as an important platform of discourse and reflection for many individuals, allowing them to share stories, find common ground and agitate for police and government reform around racial issues,” writes the study’s authors.
In other words, the platform allowed activism to seep from the ether of the internet into the real world as people organized in-person protests.
Accountability: how Influencers Changed the Discussion Around Social Issues
Although Twitter itself has undeniably influenced the spread of movements like Black Lives Matter, influencers also shape the conversation.
Influencers like Melina Abdullah, a Black Lives Matter organizer, share a call for action on Instagram. “Bring your ballot, we’re marching to the polls,” she posted on an infographic for an organized protest.
But the relationship between influencers and their followers can become complicated — especially when followers expect influencers to respond to social movements.
In a Harper’s Bazaar article, titled What Role can and Should Infleuncers Play in the BLM Movement? journalist Chidozi Obasi unravels some of the criticisms influencers face when it comes to participating in the movement.
“Demonstrations decrying racism and police brutality have swept the globe, yet some are using the protests to stage photo opportunities,” Obasi writes.
Many of these photos include influencers who painted themselves with blackface, a term which describes the act of painting one’s face and creating caricatures of Black people for entertainment.
Expectations of influencers are made clearer with the recent reaction to resurfaced videos by Youtuber Shane Dawson. In these videos, Dawson is seen painted in blackface on multiple occasions, acting out scenes and impersonating different characters, including one called “ghetto girl” Shanaynay.
Outrage over these videos, as well as discussions on the racist origins of blackface, erupted. As fans demanded a response from the Youtuber with over 21 million followers, an apology was released.
In it, Dawson states: “I didn’t actually look into the history of it and why it’s so wrong and why people were so upset.”
Responsibility: why Influencer’s Messages Matter
Although influencers with large followings like Dawson’s are being called into question for their racist pasts, audiences are also criticizing influencers who fail to use their platforms to speak out about recent racial injustice.
An article by Kat Tenberg for Insider elaborates the tension influencers face when being urged to publicly address police brutality — something their platforms were not created for.
“It’s representative of both the explosive current moment and evolving stances on celebrity worship and online conduct,” writes Tenberg.
Within this contentious atmosphere, opinions on how influencers should respond, or the codes for “online conduct” as Tenberg puts it, are being called into question.
Zeke Thomas — an activist, influencer, and musician — shares his opinion about the responsibility of influencers to their audiences. “I have been disappointed at many social media influencers who have no problem posting shirtless pictures for attention but not using their platforms to advocate for the less fortunate or privileged,” he explained. “Also people who are Slacktivists who are very ‘woke’ on social media and believe that just by posting that is enacting change.”
Echoing a similar sentiment to Thomas is Instagram influencer Hakeemah Cummings, who writes, “influencers want the spotlight but not the responsibility and accountability. I’m calling out everyone who ignores me and my community when we are in pain.”
Celebrities, touted as predecessors to modern influencers, are also criticized for their statements responding to the Black Lives Matter movement. In one video titled, I Take Responsibility, a collection of actors in short clips declare that they take responsibility for moments of racism either witnessed or enacted as response to the murder of George Floyd.
Collin Rugg from Trending Politics criticizes the short video, stating, “there’s no question that you know, that there are things that need to be changed in this country. But when celebrities come out and they virtue signal this hard, it’s nauseating.”
But the Black Lives Matter movement is not the only instance where influencers are popping up to share their opinions.
Research by the Center for Media Management, for example, finds that influencers have become instrumental in spreading information through their platforms. Although, sometimes, that information can be false.
“According to our research, influencer content has become politicized—ignited by resistance to COVID-19 precautions, QAnon conspiracies, and protests following the May 25th murder of George Floyd,” the media center research revealed.
Instagram influencer Asheleigh Fay describes the growing issue of how influencer’s actions are impacting their audience when it comes to COVID-19.
“Recently, there’s been so many massive influencers blatantly ignoring social distancing, mask wearing… the whole bit,” Fay adds. “That’s terrifying that those influencers can easily be influencing others to do the same and put their loved ones at risk.”
Recruitment: the Power of Partisan Posts
Motivated by a desire to tap into niche audiences, election campaigns seek to recruit influencers for their followings.
Research titled Social Media Influencers and the 2020 U.S. Election: Paying ‘Regular People’ for Digital Campaign Communication also found that 2020 U.S. election campaigns on both sides of the spectrum scout small-scale influencers to put out politicized content in the hopes of swaying their audiences.
Influencers with niche audiences are appealing to candidates because they allow political campaigns to directly reach sections of the population previously inaccessible before social media.
“The currency of social media influencers, especially those with smaller audiences, is authenticity,” the research further describes.
But, perhaps this “authenticity” is superficial, the study’s authors suggest, stating, “Many influencers don’t reveal they’ve been paid, and payments often take place off social media platforms.”
According to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), this is an illegal practice since these posts aren’t disclosing that they are being directly paid by their affiliated campaign. Because these posts are projected to the infleuncer’s audience as their own personal opinion, it’s hard to know for sure if an influencer is authentic.
“Product Placement on Steroids”
Despite the authenticity of influencers, they remain an important access point for brands and consumers.
For instance, according to the Digital Marketing Institute, 74% of people trust social networks to guide purchasing decisions.
At the forefront of this industry is the CEO and co-founder of Amnesia Media, Courtney Wu. Her company works to connect brands with influencers to fill their marketing needs within the cannabis industry. Through professional consulting, Amnesia provides budgeting and marketing strategies and ensures a smooth relationship between the brand and their carefully curated influencers, which are chosen from their collection of over 300,000 influencers.
When asked why influencers are so important in advertising, Wu explains, “social platforms allow people to actually have relationships.”
She describes the relationship as a peer-to-peer one, which counters traditional models where direct communication to a celebrity is generally impossible. There is a greater perceived sense of communication — a sense of intimacy — between influencer and follower.
“You know, at what point historically could you maybe message Kim Kardashian?” elaborates Wu.
Influencer marketing leans heavily on the notion that those who follow them feel a kinship or connection. Because influencers reflect specific interests and values, this makes them an ideal and direct way for brands to reach their desired consumers.
“Think of it as product placement on steroids,” Wu describes.
They are also valuable assets to companies hoping to expand their reach to lifelong customers. “The fact of the matter is that outside of the cannabis space, the lifetime value of a customer acquired through influencer marketing is much higher, so the quality of the lead is stronger,” Wu explains.
On average, an influencer can make $30,000 to $100,000 a year from paid sponsorships, according to Fox Business.
But investing in influencer marketing isn’t always cheap.
“For every 10,000 followers, assume about $100 in cost for one piece of content,” Wu reveals. This translates to about $10,000 for one ad from one influencer with one million followers.
While influencers are making potentially thousands of dollars for a single post, brands are also cashing in. For every dollar spent on an influencer marketing campaign, brands and companies are making $6.50, according to a study by Tomoson.
Aside from large brands reaching out to influencers to market their products, influencers have also taken it upon themselves to use social media to market their own brands.
Qaysean Williams, creator of fashion brand Manikin, describes how Instagram has altered the way he is able to market himself.
“Social media has been a great tool to expand my brand in ways that was not as available for small brands before social media, at least without spending a pretty penny on advertising and marketing in other channels of distribution,” he explains.
“Influencers who have done a great job at targeting their market, and are creating amazing content that helps their audience in whatever way they are aiming to do so, builds loyal following and these followers trust the influencer and are willing to listen to the influencer when it comes to advice, purchases, etc.,” he adds. “That is Power!”
Influencers and Mental Health: the Mental Health Enigma
The impact of social media on mental health can have real ramifications for users of all ages.
For adolescents, the time spent on social media can negatively impact their mental health. Specifically, research by Jama Psychiatry states, “Adolescents who spend more than three hours per day on social media may be at heightened risk for mental health problems, particularly internalizing problems.”
Two-thirds of adults believe that using social media increases feelings of loneliness and isolation, according to an article by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
Issues of comparison to social media influencers are partly to blame for increases in mental health-related disorders, reports The Lexington Line author Alyce Adkins. “Constant exposure to altered images can lead to an unhealthy pressure to achieve unrealistic body types, which can result in body dysmorphic behaviors,” writes Adkins.
Licensed clinical social worker, Alicia Erickson Zink, says “I have seen a great increase in the levels of anxiety and depression in the younger population that I work with. They are more susceptible to comparing themselves to others as a result of social media posts which inherently makes them question their own self worth.”
While people who consume social media are at increased risk of developing mental health conditions, influencers also bear the brunt of these impacts.
“It’s hard not to get caught in the comparison game and compare your content and your reach up against others. It can create an unhealthy mental state if you don’t step back from it,” shares Ashleigh Fay, an Instagram influencer and marine biologist who uses her platform to share her love of coffee.
Zeke Thomas promotes the importance of mental health awareness on his social media platforms, but warns about the ways in which it can be detrimental.
“Social media plays predominantly a negative role,” Thomas adds. “The cyber bullying and comparing that happens on social media is unhealthy. However many social media platforms allow for elevation of positivity if you seek it out.”
For some, having a larger following can be a detriment when it comes to mental health. An influencer, hair stylist and Suicide Girl model who is publicly known as Leza Lush empahsizes the ways in which social media can lead to feeling unsafe.
“I think a larger following comes with more negative feedback and comments. So bullying can be worse when you have more followers,” she explains. “I also had an Uber driver stalker who found me on social media and started sending me emails and of course I was worried because he knew where I lived.”
While social media can have a negative impact on mental health, some platforms are dedicated to educating users about mental health. Influencer Dr. Nicole LePera shares bite-sized images on Instagram with long texts often containing intimate details from her life and her journey with mental health.
Other Instagram accounts like “letstalkaboutmentalhealth” share posts of graphics alternated with images of short quotes encouraging its followers to evaluate their own mental health. Texts like “speaking up and asking for help doesn’t make us needy, weak or sensitive, it makes us human,” are broadcasted to thousands of followers.
Post from @letstalkaboutmentalhealth on Instagram.
Celebrities like Jameela Jamil advocate for opening up the conversation on issues like body dysmorphia and other mental health disorders. Intimate details like surviving a suicide attempt and her personal thoughts on the way women are portrayed in media flood her Instagram profile.
“I have never met anyone who doesn’t have mental health problems, and I’m so glad that I’m alive in a time where people feel ready to talk about it or at least show it,” Jamil explains in a short Youtube video.
Jamil is also critical of influencers who post sponsored content. In 2018, she called out rapper Cardi B for promoting laxative detox teas. “I hope all these celebrities all shit their pants in public, the way the poor women who buy this nonsense upon their recommendation do,” reads her (now deleted) Twitter post.
Although reports of social media’s influence are mixed in terms of having a positive and negative impact — for Fay, marine biologist and influencer, the reality that social media creates interconnection is evident.
“The positives are definitely the community aspect that social media creates,” she says. “It finds like-minded people and creates these mini communities of creators.”
Williams, fashion designer, hopes to reinforce through his content a fundamental truth.
“We have to remember our own lives are unique and just as cool and whether you have 20 likes or 200,000, you are still a rockstar,” he explains.
Written by Lauren Diaz