CLASH OF COMMENTS: Do Influencers have a duty to be activists?


Annabel and Ben debate the issue in light of Molly-Mae's recent social media onslaught

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Image by ITV

By Annabel Mulliner and Ben Wilson

Yes- Annabel Mulliner

While it’s ridiculous that influencers should be obligated to speak up on any and every political issue they nevertheless have a social responsibility to use their platforms to advocate for others.

Having a large audience grants influencers a huge amount of, well, influence, and speaking out at the right time can really help to boost awareness around important issues, or to make change on a local level. For example, model and actress Hunter Schafer frequently shares Crowdfunder’s by queer and trans fans in need of financial support. This sort of activism avoids commenting on complex issues that influencers themselves may not have an in-depth understanding of.

Equally, it does not take an in-depth understanding of, for example, racism, to take a stance against racism online. In the online world, influencers wield an immense amount of power, and therefore have arguably the biggest leverage in challenging discrimination online. In a feature in October 2020, I explored how the influencer market itself is incredibly white dominated, with non-white influencers being paid less on average than their white counterparts. It’s important that white influencers speak out in support of their black peers- nothing will change without collective action.

But activism doesn’t stop at speaking out, nor is it about who can shout the loudest, though it can often seem that way online, when we are bombarded with infographics that it can feel obligatory to repost. Activism permeates into every aspect of our lives – whether that is the businesses we are supporting, or how we respond to bigotry in our everyday lives. Influencers are no exception to this, with brand sponsorships being the main source of income for most. Choosing to work with sustainable and ethical companies and avoiding those that uphold harmful values or unfair working practises is undeniably something that should be strived for.

Returning to the Molly-Mae debacle – it’s easy to forget that there are many sub-types of influencers beyond the Love Island veterans. What gives an influencer’s activism more leverage is the personhood behind it. Personally, I have found that following body positive influencers like Melanie Murphy and @make_love_not_diets and unfollowing a few airbrushed celebrities has made my Instagram feed a much healthier place to be, and I have definitely been prompted to question my own internalised fatphobia. Even Molly-Mae’s own advocacy for embracing natural beauty after having some of her cosmetic surgery reversed cannot be underestimated as a form of body-positive activism.

Granted, Instagram activism can oversimplify complex issues. But this ‘activism-lite’ is crucial in making information accessible to users in the first instance. On the other side of the table, it enables members of minority groups to share their experiences first-hand.Although the nature of Instagram means that influencers’ words can often be taken as gospel and it can be difficult to have constructive debates, it democratises activism by allowing those outside of academia to speak out to large audiences.While online activism isn’t without its shortfalls, it is here to stay, as influencers already wield a huge amount of political power – now it’s about working out how it can most effectively be used.

No- Ben Wilson

Considering the mixed response to Molly-Mae’s silence on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the complexity of influencer activism is clear.While many will see a morally ‘correct’ side to take, and advocate the use of public platforms to endorse it, others see the risk of spreading potentially ill-informed views. That said, I feel quite strongly that the far simpler issue of harassing somebody into activism has a clear answer: don’t.

In this particular instance, Hague’s influence is proven by her astronomical social media following of over 6.5 million. Her silence during this particularly troubled period of the ongoing conflict was taken by many to suggest ambivalence, laziness and even a misuse of power. But without intending to belittle the career of an influencer, their success essentially relies upon being liked. They profit from their audience identifying, respecting or admiring them, and subsequently wanting to align themselves with their ideologies and lifestyle choices. So, is it not reasonable to assume that the position an influencer projects is swayed by the expectations of their followers? If they share a view which contrasts with that of their audience, do they not make themselves vulnerable to attack?

Unfortunately, the media is an unforgiving place and the onslaught of 6.5 million people is enough to bother even those with the thickest of skin. It is important to remember that influencers are human being, so the additional pressure of enforced activism is probably best avoided. It’s generally accepted that the term ‘duty’ implies such an obligation as you might talk about in a job description. This raises the question: what part ofMolly-Mae’s role as an influencer obligates her to educate the public on international affairs? We’re certainly not holding all celebrities to this sort of scrutiny.

Regardless of the morality involved with a certain issue, it should not be the duty of internet and TV personalities, fashion-brand owners, or models to make their position clear, or even have a position at all, on current affairs. In recent months we have seen the various costs and benefits of social media as the platform through which opinions and information are spread from police brutality, to the the BLM protests. Many found themselves trapped between a desire to demonstrate alliance with oppressed factions, and a desire to avoid criticism for acting in a ‘performative’ manner. Though influencers could be accused of abusing their privilege by staying silent, equally by speaking out they take attention away from the voices of those who are impacted by the issue directly. You wouldn’t go to a politician for fashion advice, so why go to an influencer for your news broadcast?

While those with large public platforms should use them for good. This does not mean they are obligated to speak out on every humanitarian crisis that passes the headlines. Like with charity, not every one can contribute to every good cause, else their impact would become negligible. Likewise, if influencers stick to speaking on subjects they are passionate about rather than being pushed into sharing half-formed opinions, perhaps their input will make a more tangible difference.