If you are in any way involved with the feminist side of social media, you’ve likely seen the plagiarism accusations against Florence Given by fellow feminist influencer and author, Chidera Eggerue. If you’re not familiar with the topic, simply type either name into Twitter and there will be hours of reading for you to do, but the plagiarism aspect isn’t what stood out to me about this debate. Rather, it was the categorisation of Given and Eggerue as activists, both by their followers and peers but also by themselves. In discussions with friends, one key question emerged; can influencers be defined as activists?
Typically activism is defined as campaigning for political or social change on a specific issue. Whilst an activist may act alone or in a group, they are almost always campaigning for change which impacts a collective, which is important to emphasise. But, the advent of social media has changed the way activism works, and has only been accelerated by COVID and the huge world events and campaigns that have taken place during global lockdowns.
It’s true that social media has revolutionised activism in many positive ways. It has provided a perfect platform for organisation of protests, and has allowed education and awareness campaigns on Instagram and Twitter to be seen by many more people than previously possible. There are of course limits to this – the literal limits of character counts as well as the conflict between being informative and gaining followers means that the depth of information is limited and proper attention can’t be paid to the complexities and intersections of issues. In recent years, the emergence of influencers has complicated matters further.
The central issue when it comes to influencers is the focus on the individual. Influencer-activists rarely start as activists when they join social media (even though they may have participated in activism in the past) but rather begin as influencers who then use their platform for activism. The success of influencers is measured by follower count and engagement, not on the success of their campaigns or the real-life impact of their activism. When activism revolves around a singular person, it creates a situation where the influencer’s opinion is taken as representative of the movement as a whole, unlike news or education-based social media accounts who generally aim for more balanced content.
When influencers don’t encourage real life activism, it can become a cycle where performative activism is reinforced – the influencer is doing enough by raising awareness, and the follower is doing enough by listening. And, at the more toxic end of the scale, followers can become so ‘loyal’ to the influencer that differing opinions are treated as an attack on the influencer in question, in a bizarre, fandom-esque relationship which compels followers to feel the need to ‘defend’ the influencer they so devotedly follow. The lack of collaboration between influencers in order to preserve their own ‘brand’ continues to encourage this sort of intense relationship, especially when followers feel they can relate to the personal stories that influencers share on their platform.
But, why is any of this important? If the Given/Eggerue situation has taught us anything, it’s that positioning yourself as both an activist and an influencer gives you an immense amount of power which can be easily misused, whether that be intentionally or simply through the misunderstandings that the influencer-activist crossover can cause.
Influencers can quickly be seen as leaders of a movement purely due to their follower count without having the experience of seasoned activists or the depth of knowledge on the topic which might be expected. The influencer-follower dynamic then creates an insular environment where the influencer’s opinion is taken as gospel without a) healthy debate or b) the opportunity for individuals to form their own opinions, since the influencer is seen as the ‘expert’.
This is not to say that influencers shouldn’t be using their platforms to raise awareness of important issues. Rather, I think influencers would be doing a much better job by giving genuine activists a platform or redirecting their followers towards organisations, charities, and informative accounts which can more effectively educate and mobilise people.
The influencer phenomenon gives so much power to people who are not necessarily in the position to effectively use it, so as consumers of their content we need to be aware of who we are following, how many sides of the movement we engage with, and how we view influencer-activists as a whole.
Ella Neve Wilton is a SOAS Junior Digital Ambassador, currently studying BA International Relations and Korean.