In a fraught era of a global pandemic, civil unrest, and a dire election cycle, it seems that the vapid strategies that modern influencers utilize to #staywoke have come to a crossroads.
On the grid
Though influencers tend to determine what’s “cool” in mainstream culture, their followings have recently taken a more critical perspective. Questioning the content that’s been cropping up on their timelines. One of the more prominent examples is the black square controversy.
It started as an earnest attempt by Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang to discuss internal racism within the music industry. But, instead became an easy cop-out for the typically “politically neutral” influencers to virtue signal, erasing its intended call to action. Even outspoken celebrities such as Emma Watson showed their true colors during this unfortunate trend. As she decided to put a white border around the empty black square. Matching the post to the rest of her curated page, indicating her true priorities.
There were also the infamous stunts that more mainstream celebrities pulled to “connect” with fans struggling through the pandemic. From starlets in their vacation homes singing a pitchy rendition of “Imagine” to a similar effort claiming that they “take responsibility” for systemic racism. Which had celebrities staring teary-eyed at their webcam, drenched in a black and white filter. You know, to show they’re sad.
A more recent example of branded content disguised as activism is #vote all over social media. Through hectic pre-election months, just saying the word “vote” has been the easiest way to call attention to your page. Vote for who? And where? Some might ask, and usually, it doesn’t really matter.
When uploading these obvious performative posts, followers can read these efforts as disingenuous. Since in addition to being poorly researched, this empty rhetoric is also aestheticized for easy consumption.
Infographics in pleasing bright colors have become an influencer’s go-to strategy to speak out but still remain “on brand” during a crisis. These story posts have, of course, faced subsequent backlash across Twitter and meme pages alike, poking fun at the way social media mavens accidentally reveal their privilege when making these posts. Not to mention that Instagram models have also continued their queue of posts in uncompromising positions. With a simple “vote” or “BLM” caption tacked on to rectify the poorly timed post. Such as Victoria’s Secret Angel Elsa Hosk doodling “vote” across her toned (and very pregnant) stomach.
These posts are a strange combination of influencers’ vain bottom line—to be idealized, and an attempt to empathize. Which, obviously, has shown not to mix well. Their reductive captions read as tone-deaf to followers facing over-policing and voter suppression in their own communities. These posts then look just as self-involved as any other beach pic. This mixed messaging creates the toxic idea that social awareness is just a marketable fad in the same category as the midi skirts, grain bowls, and VSCO filters that litter their feeds. Making their “ideal” brand, suddenly less than.
However, that’s not to say that all influencer posts are malicious in their intention. Nor impossible to be helpful in practice.
Spreading awareness is one of the more admirable actions that someone with a significant following could take. TikTok is the fastest-growing application available with 50 million active users, and around 55% of people get their news from social media platforms just like it every single day. So, whether we like it or not, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and any other current iteration is the most universal and accessible method of communication in 2020.
Therefore, influencers have a unique opportunity to utilize their massive audience to spread pertinent information about the global climate. Some are already doing this important work. With figures like Ariana Grande setting up voter registration booths at her sold-out shows, and actress Jameela Jamil reposting tweets from community organizers on her main grid.
Even though it’s not in the job description, influencers taking the initiative and using their influence for good has become an integral part of awareness campaigns. With issues like Black Lives Matter and the Palestine conflict gaining major attention from the youth demographic, who were most likely mobilized from the information they read on social media.
But, now being in post-election in the United States, this activism still seems like a fad. Frantic Instagram graphics have slowly been disappearing. Influencers are back to partying in large groups despite pandemic restrictions, as seen in Kim Kardashian’s laughable birthday post.
It’s unfortunate since the only upside to the pandemic has been the opportunity for social issues to be widely discussed. However, being still within the confines of the idealistic influencer’s reign, it’s near impossible to ascertain who is being “performative” or not. Making even genuine efforts feel forced when posted on social media.
To me, this election cycle also gave an easy side to be on. A simple “right” and “wrong.” With a vague message to “register” along with it. Which positively enabled a lot of figures to do the “right” thing and speak out. But, only time will tell if this activism can continue to instigate more methods of social change. Or, if it’s just another flex.