Over the last two months, reality stars and some of Instagram’s most popular figures have been tagging photos of their sunkissed limbs from locations like Bali, the Maldives and Dubai, prompting a crackdown on tourism in the latter country.
Fans accused them of being out of touch and selfish for travelling during lockdown. Tabloids – which have historically adored criticising young female influencers – led the way on a vitriol campaign, reporting on those escaping lockdown and their rubbish apologies. A This Morning video brought the debate to a head after a fitness blogger claimed she had travelled to Dubai to motivate her fans.
Now YouTube creators – especially those known for sit-down chatty videos analysing internet culture – are racking up high view counts for uploads criticising fellow influencers for travelling and partying during lockdown. Their videos project an unsubtle but clear message: there are “good” influencers and there are “bad” influencers.
One video from American YouTuber Tyler Oakley, titled “Dear influencers partying during the pandemic…”, is almost on 220,000 views. Beauty vlogger Smokey Glow’s “Let's Talk About Influencer Entitlement and Accountability” has over 260,000.
In his “Influencer-19” video, D’angelo Wallace, a YouTuber with 1.69 million subscribers, deftly notes the dozens of influencers who have broken COVID safety restrictions for travelling during the pandemic. Charli D’Amelio, Kim Kardashian and Jake Paul all come under fire in his hour-long video, which is now on three million views.
“A single-celled organism that feeds off clout would make the same decision” these people are making, he says with an unwavering stare. If you’ve been stuck inside all winter, it makes for cathartic watching.
But there’s another side to this – YouTubers know they’ll get clout if they call out other influencers for rule-breaking. Consciously or not, they’re establishing themselves as the good guys who are following the rules.
“I came to the realization that a lot of [other influencers] probably really don't care, because they don't face many consequences for their actions,” says Anna, the creator of the Anna’s Analysis channel. Her video, “Why Influencers Get Away with Everything” highlights how huge online stars like Shane Dawson and James Charles somehow dodge accountability time and time again for their actions.
“They might lose a little bit of followers,” she says over Skype, “but by the end of the year, they're still back to where they were before the scandal.”
Anna uploaded the video in January, on the day the global death toll from coronavirus hit 2.34 million. “I definitely want people to be more aware of who they're following and what kind of things they're supporting online.” Following someone and watching their content gives them money, she explains, and inevitably endorses their behaviour.
Experts say that at a time when YouTube is saturated with content, videos like Anna’s and D’Angelo’s are unlikely to go away. In fact, the internet actively encourages the repetitive cycle of influencer action, reaction video and subsequent reaction to those videos – it’s one way of going viral and getting noticed.
These types of video, often called commentary, are having a key moment in holding influencers accountable in their own spaces during the pandemic. Dr Sophie Bishop, a lecturer in digital marketing and communications at King’s College London, suggests it’s a way for influencers to police their own notoriously underregulated industry.
“I think these are techniques to demarcate yourself individually and as a trustworthy person whose work is legitimate,” she says, comparing it to Instagram influencers like Zoe London calling every year’s Love Island cohort for incorrectly labelling sponsored posts.
Influencers have always worked in opposition to something else, she adds. These YouTubers are pitting themselves against reality TV influencers, whereas the industry previously put itself in opposition to celebrities.
It’s unsurprising that videos of influencers criticising other influencers do well. “People making loops and loops of reaction videos and bandwagoning on controversy is pretty much a staple, especially in British YouTube,” said Curtin University associate professor Crystal Abidin, an anthropologist of internet culture. She links it to the popularity of drama channels, a genre that bounced off the cult popularity of beauty YouTube channels and the subsequent online fights between its influencers.
The internet both rewards and requires this kind of content too. These commentary and reaction videos are something known as “ricochet content”, Abidin said, and are a result of YouTube “becoming especially saturated with more and more players, meaning more micro influencers at the lowest scale of content production are falling into very niche markets”.
This new internet culture we’re seeing now has “a hyper competitive aspect for attention grabbing,” she explained. Platforms – TikTok especially – encourages reaction videos as “this bandwagoning of ricochet content extends the shelf life of someone else first going viral,” Abidin said.
But why are these criticisms of influencers so popular right now? Tiffany Ferguson, a YouTuber who produces these kinds of commentaries for her 637,000 followers, thinks they validate fans' feelings. She situates these videos with the rise of doomscrolling, the masochistic act that became increasingly popular at the beginning of the pandemic when most people were first going through lockdown.
“I think many viewers want to watch influencers and creators that are self-aware and acknowledge the big issues going on ‘in the real world’,” Tiffany speculates. “Sometimes we want escapism and light content, but a lot of us can’t stand to watch creators that seem to live in their own bubble, especially during this time when so many traumatic, painful things are happening.”
One thing both YouTubers and online culture experts agreed on is that big influencers will come out of this pandemic unscathed because of their loyal audiences. At worst, there’ll be “‘a period of going dark’ – influencer vernacular for going offline – but this will last a few days,” Abidin says. “I don't think all influencers have the same privilege to play with this type of risky discourse of being tone-deaf, however.” Instead, she says, mid and lower-tier influencers trying to break into the industry or build their platforms are the ones who will likely be hit hardest.
So is there any use in producing or watching critical content about influencers, especially if it doesn’t change anything? The Digital Fairy, a creative agency that works with influencers and brands, asked over email: “Surely it’s better to just unfollow all the influencers making you feel inadequate rather than to digest longform content which tells you everything you don’t like about them?”
It’s hard to argue with the logic. But it’s also hard to ignore the satisfaction of an hour-long dissection of why influencers travelling in the pandemic are selfish, while we’re still locked indoors. Then again, when do we ever make choices that benefit us online? If we did, we’d all just log off forever.