This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
The Influencers In the Wild Instagram account curates submitted videos of influencers caught in the dirty act of content creation. They could be doing any number of things – a handstand on a cliff edge, posing in a busy street, swinging their mane and laughing maniacally – only for their face to drop once the moment is over. The cutting humour derives from the fact that videos are sent in by fans who sometimes overlay their own commentary on it: “Oh yeah, that’s me in Italy," one follower titters as an one influencer performs next to a lake.
After the death of George Floyd, the tone of Influencers In the Wild changed. The account owner, George Resch (a.k.a Tank Sinatra), began sharing videos of influencers misbehaving at protests or posing with tools in front of destroyed buildings post-riot. In one now-deleted video, an influencer in a black flowing dress walks over to position herself in the path of the walking protest, and holds her #BLM placard up for a picture. The entire scene happens in a few seconds: a content opportunity arises, the approach, the snap, the retreat. Followers of the account were incredulous: they hunted down the influencer and tagged her in the comments.
“It did become a bit of a shaming platform, which was completely unintentional and I tried to change it as soon as I realised what was going on,” Resch tells me. “But I think that instead of vicarious cringing, [the followers' responses] went to shame and anger at people who are co-opting this historically and unbelievably important moment in our history.”
We are all influencers in 2020, as Resch points out in the bio for his account. We all constantly create content based on a personal brand, but some people’s content is their job. The influencing industry exists to market and advertise other brands. As we collectively move to educate ourselves about fast fashion, company ethics and vital social justice movements like Black Lives Matter, influencers have to do this under a microscope.
It poses an interesting problem for those who have built their platforms by making themselves a sellable brand. How can a more politically conscious movement happen among influencers when their job is to centre themselves? How do they change their output from being about "me" to being about “us”? Is it even possible to do well?
For Ione Gamble, founder of feminist magazine and community Polyester, it would require influencers to hand over reins to other creators. A recent Instagram micro-trend – one that has been exacerbated by #BLM and this year's Pride – is influencers making their own social justice graphics, rather than sharing those of others who are of and embedded in those movements.
“The way that the internet works is that it’s easy to establish clout, so if you are making your own original graphics about calling out racists and homophobes or being complicit or whatever, you’re just gaining more clout and followers from doing this," Gamble says. "Those kinds of people whose brands are already associated with 'social justice' are very clever and aware of the way these things work.” Instead, followers' attention could be redirected to activists, writers and influencers in those specific fields.
Gamble believes that each influencer should interrogate their own practices thoroughly if they want to become more politically conscious on their feeds. “Influencing works on a fast fashion basis: it’s quicker than any form of advertising, which is why it lends itself so well to brands like Pretty Little Thing or Topshop,” says Gamble, adding that a certain cognitive dissonance often arises for influencers and their followers when they react to a huge moment in politics or social justice, like Black Lives Matter, but continue to support fast fashion. “We see that in feminism, where influencers will talk about empowerment but also sell you some H&M spon con.”
That dissonance has arguably never been more visible than in our current moment. A quick scroll through some big name influencers' accounts shows them posting black squares and then returning to selling brands that exploit sweatshop labour or test on animals. Between the aggressive ads and affiliate links, the social justice tiles highlight just how incongruous the two are: an influencer's usual fare and "issues" with a capital "I".
Although many consumers are still happy to buy fast fashion and follow influencers for the purposes of sheer escapism, more savvy and socially-minded followers have noticed this inconsistency. “During the present situation with BLM protests, I realised that most influencers spread the white guilt, almost like guilt eroticism, to not to lose popularity or followers. Funnily enough, some of them were praised for this,” said Hazal, 29. “It doesn’t make sense for an influencer who basically makes money by working towards consumerism, then talking about class struggle or systemic racism... How can you wear a pair of Louis Vuitton PJs and talk about equality for all?”
Maddie, 25, said that she approached one successful white influencer from her hometown, asking her to speak up about #BLM. “They said they were worried it would be seen as ‘jumping on the bandwagon for clout’. I understand the worry but think it’s better to educate yourself so you can speak on basic human rights. I went on an unfollowing spree and need to do more.”
There are influencers who have been doing the work. DJ and influencer Mercedes Benson says that the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have made her reassess her identity as an influencer and consumer. She found it personally “inappropriate” to be posting anything but Black Lives Matter content during the weeks following the murder of George Floyd, and says it was fear that stopped many influencers from speaking out. “We’re so used to trying to create the perfect feed as influencers, so because people didn’t know what to say. They wanted whatever they said to be perfect, it stifled them from actually saying something.”
When she posted BLM content, she noticed that she lost hundreds of followers but gained hundreds of new ones. She puts their interest down to SocialFIXT, the platform she founded to help get black people into creative jobs. “I’m not concerned anymore about what brands don't want to work with me or who unfollows me because of my views," she says. "It’s a purge. I want active followers who are engaged with what I’m saying." She adds: "Not all money is good money.”
She raises the example of Oh Polly, a fast fashion brand that was accused in 2019 of featuring only white models on their Instagram feed. In response, Oh Polly set up an account specifically for minority and plus-sized models (the handle was simply @ohpollyinclusive). “The segregation was deafening,” Mercedes says. “I couldn’t in all conscience wear or work with brands like that.”
Vegan and fitness influencer Stefanie aka Naturally Stefanie says that it's not difficult to be a more politically conscious influencer, although it is a careful step-by-step process. She has experience of being called out by her followers – they keep her in check, for example, if she features a vegan brand who has dodgy ethical practices. “It’s about understanding what is best for you in the long run, rather than going for the money, and building trust with followers,” she says.
Both Mercedes and Stefanie have started unfollowing influencers who frequently promote fast fashion. “When you watch someone and they post a haul from PLT, Motel Rocks etc, you have to think 'wait a minute, is this doing me a disservice by not following by own morals and beliefs?'” says Stefanie.
A genuine influencer awakening poses a problem to these companies: if influencers address their own personal standards, it’ll mean brands will have to start doing the same. Harry Hugo, founder of influencer marketing agency, the Goat Agency, thinks that this will eventually have a positive impact, even if the route to get there will be difficult. “I think most companies had the expectation that they’d have to change their operations to a more sustainable way – and I don’t just mean fast fashion. COVID and the social consciousness movements that’ve happened over last few weeks have meant that things that were going to happen in three to five years are now happening in the next three to five months.”
Unsurprisingly, panicked brands are already looking to utilise influencers in an effort to save themselves. A new survey by an influencer-marketing agency shows that 41 percent of brands want to hire influencers in the coming months not to sell product at all, but to look sensitive and deliver the "right" message. It's not a cynical leap to see how easy it would be for brands and influencers to bypass the work required of this difficult social and economic period and unite in empty messaging and virtual signalling.
That could work in the short-form, but it seems inevitable that more ethically ambiguous influencers will be forced to change their practices to survive. Too many younger followers are demanding change. Resch had to delete some recent #BLM videos because comments about the influencers had become violent or unpleasant. The influencer who had posed during the protest in her floaty dress had even received death threats.
“This girl is 23 years old and she’s been in America for about a year, a year and a half," Resch explains of his decision to delete that video. "Not to excuse her vanity or narcissism, but let’s be honest, there’s no way this girl knew about what black people had been going through in America over the last 20, 30, years with police brutality, and therefore might not have understood how important this particular moment in time was.”
Resch is that rare sort of person who has to believe that people are doing their best at any given moment, but remains realistic about influencers who lack self-awareness or make empty gestures towards empathy and politics. “I think that people who have a platform have a major responsibility,” he says, “and they either tend to make it about themselves or they make it about the people who follow them. I think the latter wind up doing better.”