Consider how much the events of this year have reprioritized your world: Are you thinking about injustices or societal problems you hadn’t considered before? Do you still spend money in the same way? Have you altered big career goals or personal life plans?
For many of us, this means that the social media celebrities and influencers we used to love (or maybe loved to hate) have dropped to the bottom of what feels necessary these days. Frankly, some have become just plain difficult to watch. Whether they’re hopping on the latest hashtag trend that seems like just another excuse to post a selfie, or engaging in more actively harmful activities — like attending crowded gatherings, posting performative “social justice” messages, accepting PPP loans they don’t need, or knocking off struggling small designers — it can be hard to justify tuning in, if it means lining their pockets. The simplest-seeming choice is to smash the unfollow button and move on. But for some observers, that’s not enough.
There’s a small but growing number of social media users dedicated to calling out shady influencer behavior, whether it’s photoshopping images and pretending they haven't, or potentially endangering the lives of others during a pandemic. Among most popular of these social media vigilantes is Instagram account InfluencersTruth, which currently has over 68k followers, and is structured similarly to Diet Prada, the famed fashion world caller-outer. The creator, C., who spoke to Refinery29 on the condition of anonymity, says that InfluencersTruth’s goals are simple: “I can assure you that this wasn’t part of some grand plan. Right now, InfluencersTruth is a solo act with no plans to monetize itself in any way,” she explains.
For C., her motivation was purely emotional. After seeing how some high-profile influencers — ones with millions of followers, high-profile sponsorship deals, and successful businesses in their name — dealt with COVID-19, she felt compelled to speak out. “I started InfluencersTruth the first week of April during the height of the pandemic in New York City. My friend was at that time in the hospital due to COVID. He later passed away. What I kept seeing on Instagram from influencers was disgusting. The lack of self-awareness was, and continues to be, appalling,” C. says.
While much of what InfluencersTruth posts are observations about influencers’ content that anyone could theoretically come across, followers also occasionally send along secrets — some of which, C. says, are too mean to post. “I try not to be too snarky,” she explains. “But I think that everyone is tired of these influencers presenting a version of life that just isn’t reality.”
Indeed, what may have once felt like fun voyeurism — a window into the world of an ultra-connected one percenter, where designer bags come free in the mail with handwritten cards and everybody has a house in the Hamptons — now feels incredibly tone deaf, especially when the content creator in question tries to have it both ways, posting faux-woke social justice content alongside unboxing videos and #sponcon. Our fatigue for the community is growing, and people are noticing. Earlier this year, Marie Claire asked “Is This The End of The Influencer?,” Vanity Fair questioned “Is This The End of Influencing As We Know It?,” Wired to inquire “Could The Coronavirus Kill Influencer Culture?,” and Adweek shot back, “No, Coronavirus Isn’t the End of Influencer Marketing. But It Has Put It Under a Microscope.”
It may be premature to tout this backlash as the definitive “end” of influencer culture. Certainly, it’s slowing down, especially as marketing budgets have been slashed for all but the biggest content creators. But thanks to our diminished IRL social lives, we’re spending more time on social apps than ever before. According to data from eMarketer, time spent on social media is expected to rise by 8.8% this year, which means there’s still a real hunger for content. If it’s not the end of influencer culture, then it’s perhaps the end of eye roll-inducing, aspirational-at-all-costs influencer culture. It makes sense to have high expectations of those who claim to lead the lives, inhabit the perspectives, and communicate the ideas that are valuable enough to influence others.
These call-out accounts are hardly the first internet-personality watchdogs. Before there was InfluencersTruth or Diet Prada, there was Get Off My Internets (GOMI, for short), an abundantly snarky message board on which anonymous users posted about bloggers, vloggers, and whomever else annoyed them on the internet that day. Reddit also has a similar community called BlogSnark (there’s also, incredibly, now another subreddit called “blogsnarkmetasnark: a place to snark on the snarkers,” because the snarkers will inevitably become the snarkees, I guess?). But while GOMI and Reddit allow unverified gossip and pure speculation, accounts like InfluencersTruth tend to do some due diligence before publishing. “I think these ‘influencers’ forget that Google is a really powerful tool and you can find anything and everything on there,” C. says.
Sophie Ross, a copywriter and freelance journalist and former Refinery29 employee, has brought the business of calling out bad influencer behavior to Twitter, where she has about 11k followers. “A lot of people are so fed up with the facade, especially right now,” she says. “We’re experiencing a cultural shift. People are really seeing through the bullshit. The influencers that are flaunting their Chanel bags when there’s record unemployment rates… there’s just a lot of privilege-flaunting and bad behavior happening.”
Neither Ross nor InfluencersTruth have dealt with much backlash, perhaps because what they post tends to be rooted in truth and legitimate issues with influencer culture as opposed to pure snark for snark’s sake. C. says she’s received some “poorly veiled threats” from unhappy influencers, and Ross has, too: “I don’t care,” she says. “Maybe people are thinking I could be burning bridges. But I’m okay without these people. The people who I call out on Twitter aren’t people I would want to associate with ever, anyway.”
Though InfluencersTruth has a fraction of the followers that many of the influencers she posts about do, the conversation C. starts around our expectations from the people our likes, clicks, and views support are more relevant than given the events of this year. The demand for authenticity, accountability, transparency, and just plain reality is what consumers are asking for in other sectors, too; we're outraged for the same reasons when we find out the cute leggings or direct-to-consumer suitcase sold to us as emblems of progressive values are actually the output of abusive and unhappy work environments. And, like entrepreneurs, business leaders, and pretty much anyone else trying to brand themselves, social content creators who want to remain relevant in a post-2020 world are likely going to have to find a way to adapt.
“I don't think you should wait for something to blow over or wait for people to forget about it,” Ross advises influencers who may have come up against criticism in recent months. “I think you need to handle it head-on, because all of your followers are wondering what's happening. You owe transparency to your followers. Just be real for a second.”
But for those who have spent the better part of a decade airbrushing every aspect of their lives, do they even remember what real looks like? And is it possible for an influencer to apologize or rebrand in a way that doesn't feel like a self-serving ploy to keep cancellers at bay? There are plenty of jokes about influencers donning messy buns and thick-rimmed glasses to make hollow apology videos, but for those who have had to do this, it can be crushing to realize that the persona you’ve spent years cultivating doesn’t resonate anymore, and maybe even hurts people.
But the fact is, having an audience is a huge privilege that nobody is owed. And there are so many people on social media these days — like Ziwe, Rachel Cargle, or Kelli Brown — who are doing the important work of starting dialogues about race and privilege, celebrating diversity, or even just making people laugh, who many might rather see reap some of the benefits other creators with “safer” or more brand-friendly content have long enjoyed.
Even among more traditional influencer-types who want to stick with product recommendations and lifestyle shots, observers seem to think it’s still possible to cultivate an authentic relationship with an audience. “I really like Grace Atwood,” says C. “In my opinion, she’s so genuine and really puts in the work unlike a lot of other influencers who just take pictures of themselves.” That being said, C. thinks it’s impossible for influencer culture writ large to be reformed: “What I think should change is their relevance within our culture. If we all stop following, stop swiping up, and stop idolizing, I believe that our society will be healthier and happier.”