By Naomi ‘t Hart
With the birth of social media, online influencers came to life. Nowadays, people tend to speak up faster when there is conflict. Influencers have a lot of power to affect others, but this can turn out in negative ways. What is the role of an influencer in our current social world?
Social media, and Instagram in particular, is no longer just fun and games. After the killing of George Floyd on the 25th of May 2020, people across the world who could not protest on the streets due to strict lockdowns, took to Instagram to take a stand against racism. In June 2020, black squares filled our Instagram timelines. The black squares accompanied with the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday was a symbol of online activism and solidarity. Though, there was also strong criticism as people described the movement as activism for non-activists. In other words, people who would not speak up about racism offline, were doing so during a trend online.
The Blackout Tuesday movement begs the question when and how to speak up. In the aftermath of yet another attack on a black person’s life, do white influencers need to speak up? Or, do they need to step back and provide a podium for black voices to express their wants, needs and hopes? According to Kelly Buth, a lifestyle and entertainment influencer of colour, the most important thing people can do is to educate themselves: “For me, the influence of BLM wasn’t that big. I know there are still a lot of people out there who don’t know where the hurt and anger amongst black people is coming from. In the Netherlands, we have the discussion around using our version of Santa Claus using black faced helpers, which really demonstrates this ignorance,” Kelly says.
In a time with so much uncertainty, one thing is clear; the influence of social media on our daily lives is enormous. The role of influencership has become even more important due to strict lockdowns across the globe. Yet, the nature of this role has changed as we as followers expect more from influencers. We want them to know what is going on politically and to let their voice be heard on social topics. But if an influential person says something wrong, we are quick to let them know this in a sometimes extremely volatile way.
Having to do better
Someone who has experienced this ‘cancel culture’ due to racial ignorance is Lotte van Eijk, a model and influencer whose Instagram bio reads ‘Fat’, ‘She/her/hot’, ‘Hire BIPOC creators before you hire me’ and ‘protect trans kids.’ “Last year, I participated in a trend going around on Tik-Tok called the mugshot challenge. The idea was to recreate a messy mugshot by applying makeup to look as though you had been in a fight. At the time, I didn’t think twice about it, I thought it would be a fun thing to do with my sister. Whilst doing the make-up I randomly came up with the idea to make a cut in my eyebrow, because I thought it would look badass. After posting the video, I got a lot of backlash and hate comments. People said it was disrespectful to people who had been abused, as well as pointing out that the eyebrow cut I made is an appropriation of black culture,” Lotte says.
Lotte was shocked. How had she, a woke, inclusivity preaching, queer woman not seen this? She decided to face the issue head on and spent hours researching and reading about black culture. A week later Lotte posted a manifesto on her Instagram calling all white people to ‘learn from her mistake’, explaining where she went wrong and raising awareness amongst her followers for cultural appropriation. Lotte: “I needed the wakeup call of being cancelled. Looking back, I see being cancelled as a love language. Sometimes tough love is necessary to make change happen.”
Because of raised expectations: cancel culture and social responsibility form the new normal for influencers. Love them or hate them, there is no denying that influencers are a huge part of the social media landscape. Their influence is massive, especially in a time where we are homebound most of the day. Influencers of the future need to have a certain level of intellect and a thick skin to exceed the expectations of the modern-day follower. If tough love is what is needed to make change happen, expect some figuratively speaking beat and bruised influencers.