Are influencers really influencing anyone?

How would you utilize your social media account, if you had a big follower base? Recent online debates have sparked, some for and some against, about the kind of influence that celebrities and social media “influencers” are inciting through their online presence. The real question, however, relates to whether they are actually inciting any influence at all? 

In business, influencers continue to play a big role in generating conversation, driving engagement and setting cultural trends as people shy away from traditional media and choose to spend more time online. These trendsetters are particularly visible in both the Fashion and Accessories and the Food and Beverages domains globally, with many celebrities as well as those with lots of followers utilizing their presence online to advertise  products and places. Being online has its ups and downs.

One the one hand, it grants you access to information, from news to research to the opinions of others, which you are free to comment on or not. Your presence online might also pose a way for you to give back, to raise awareness or even to actuate change in your community. What’s on the other hand? Among many things, backlash.

Celebrities have long used their platforms to promote their content, engage with their audience and comment on social happenings. Today, we’re witnessing mainstream media feed off celebrities for content, asking them questions that have nothing to do with their careers and more to do with their personal opinions. 

Social media users have taken to their accounts several times to mock, criticize and counter statements given by several Lebanese celebrities, who are considered influencers. Most recently, users on Twitter and Facebook used their accounts to counter sexist comments by both Najwa Karam and Rami Ayyach on different occasions. Some decided to make jokes on the issues as a way of denouncing what the stars had said, while others chose to shed light on the wrong in the speech evoked by the two celebrities. 

The Lebanese Influencer Trend

Besides celebrities come influencers, those who only “exist” on social media and crown themselves with the title for self-fulfillment. Those of you who are active online might be familiar with influencer trends –the foodies,the gymaholics, the fashionistas, the activists, the bloggers and those who simply gained popularity for constantly posting opinions, updates and circulating content.

The trend of Instagram influencers began years back, when people who originally wrote on their blogs moved to the popular photo-sharing application and started promoting their articles there. Soon enough, more and more people began to use the application to promote themselves or something they do under the pretense of “influencing.”

But how can we really identify what an influencer is and who is seen as one –is the criteria related to the number of followers and engagement received? Or is it measured through the actual impact that the person has made?

If it’s the first, then almost anyone nowadays can name themselves an influencer even when they don’t talk or post about a specific topic or have an influence. If it’s the second, then why aren’t people like Gretta Thunberg called influencers?

During the past few years, more and more accounts have made their way to Instagram in a race to become known, sharing different kinds of contents and opinions in hopes of growing their audience. On Twitter, the same trend is seen where some opinionated accounts receive hundreds and thousands of quote retweets and comments.

The latest trends in influencer culture include couple pranks and cross posting content originally created for popular video sharing app Tiktok on Instagram for a wider reach and to gain more followers. TikTok-famous couple Walaa and Ali Hennaoui caught on to the latter trend and have since gained recognition on Instagram, which opened the door for brand collaborations and other opportunities.

What started out as a trend for people to gain some recognition doing something they enjoy, as was the case with Anis Tabet’s “Let’s Talk About Movies” for example, became a way for people to obsessively bombard their audience with content and collaborate with brands for promotions. Often, these platforms are abused to promote personal agendas or counter narratives.

More and more people began turning their personal profiles on Instagram into “personal blogs” and comedians have become the latest to join in on this trend. People with particular interests, such as exercising, dieting or reviewing food, changed their names and gained recognition for their content.

Users began anticipating specific content from pages, and the pages expanded to promote products in their feed, do competitions and giveaways while some people even got the chance to appear on TV or had their content promoted by news outlets.

The Lebanese Uprising

During the first months of the popular Lebanese uprising that started in 2019, many people and pages were using their platforms to share locations of protests and updates on what’s happening on the ground. Some established influencers used their pages to keep their audience in the loop, while in the meantime designated pages were being set up as the months moved on and the protests continued. 

Soon enough, there had been pages on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for almost everything; economic analysis, legal rights, alternative media, social justice and the infamous Thawramap to pinpoint protests, politicians and corruption.

Nonetheless, some people who had previously used their platforms for personal promotions and collaborations with brands –thus earning them the influencer title– began taking advantage of the street. They used their platforms to gain more recognition and even got dubbed as some of the “faces of the revolution.”

With such a title comes a responsibility that some of these influencers have yet to live up to. 

For example, Gino Raidy, who started out as a casual blogger and turned to Instagram to increase his blog reach and recognition, uses his page to repurpose videos, shame politicians and mock those who still follow political leaders.

His page began its influence during the 2015 movements and picked-up again in 2019. On his blog, Gino covers a range of topics that he promotes on his Instagram and Twitter accounts. Meanwhile, his social media content itself is limited politically.

Other popular influencers were also gathering content from pages and people and using it for traction, while giving opinions and personal analyses. Celebrities also joined in, voicing their approval or disapproval of roadblocks, burning tires and garbage and cursing.

What most, if not all, of these influencers failed to offer was influential content that goes beyond reposting news or sharing personal and ill-informed analyses. In parallel, the number of pages working on spreading awareness or sharing educational and fact-based content is still, to this day, null.

While news outlets like Megaphone provide us with important news updates, and pages like Khamsmieh, D Does Business, Law With Diane and others focus on specific topics, it sometimes feels as though they are preaching to the choir and face difficulties in reaching out to the general public. There’s still a large segment of the population that is cast out from the process, as they are not present on certain platforms or on social media all together.

Quickly looking at the influencers who have hundreds of thousands of followers, it’s immediately apparent that these people only use their platforms to reiterate what’s happening in a way that promotes their image and caters to what their audience wants and thinks, but nothing beyond.

People like El 3ama and Polleksandra, whose personal pages had been present on Instagram for years to promote their content, also became “revolutionary influencers” for simply repurposing content and occasionally throwing out an opinion or going live. The political, economic or social influence was close to non-existent. Meanwhile it could have reached, for example, an audience different from Gino’s. 

Surely, it is not their responsibility to educate people but when someone like El 3ama self-proclaims himself to be an influencer and then goes on to propagate negative notions such as war or abusive content like bullying, it’s important to stop and think about the role of these so-called influencers and the real influence they’re having. Are they looking for the greater good or are they simply spewing their opinions in hopes of gaining a fanbase out of it? 

Alternatively on Twitter, parody accounts began popping up and continue to make sarcastic commentary on current events. Journalists have turned their accounts into ones that tweet fast news updates. And many self-proclaimed activists use their accounts to tweet opinions and sometimes even news.

But more often than not, opinions turn into arguments and the point is missed –thus deeming the educational part of the conversation forgotten. 

Most recently on the platform, a buzz was caused by influencer Gino after using demeaning language with finance “nerd” Mohammad Faour. The buzz continued even after wrote his opinion on Citizens in A State, raising a lot of eyebrows on both Instagram and Twitter among supporters and critics. But the content did little to influence public opinion.

That’s not all, but Twitter has also seen the rise of the “nerds” who are a group of people specialized in one field and often tweet about it. These individuals act as the informative pages on Instagram do, by providing clarifications on what’s happening in regards to the banking sector, COVID and others.

Most recently, we have seen Omar Tamo become a go-to in the finance and banking sector. But the same issue that arises with Instagram arises with them, as Twitter only reaches a very specific, somewhat niche audience. 

The Coronavirus Pandemic

As the COVID-19 situation continues to worsen in Lebanon and as the healthcare system continues to crumble, many people deem themselves fit to discuss the pros and cons of taking the vaccine –which has yet to even arrive in Lebanon– without having any scientific background. These opinions become important because they factor into people’s decision-making process about the vitality of the vaccine and their understanding of it.

Health nerds on Twitter had been cautioning about the importance of precautions and implementation of a COVID-19 plan that includes specific provisions and measures in order to avoid the scenario the country is currently in. They have also been responsive in easing people’s anxieties. 

The newly established Novel Corona 19 page on Instagram has been working on exposing people and institutions that have not been abiding by the regulations while also hosting discussions with people from the healthcare sector to discuss the pandemic and the vaccine.

In parallel, celebrities have been using their platforms to spread their opinions –which are often seen as negative propaganda– about the COVID-19 vaccination and the pandemic. Much like them, journalists and other content creators have been following suit.

But on Instagram, rarely any “influencers” are working on raising awareness as much as replicating what mainstream media is doing by calling unrightfully blaming the people while ignoring the bigger culprit in today’s ordeal: the (non)government. During the early days of the pandemic, before COVID fatigue held us hostage, many of the influencers were hosting guests by going live on Instagram or Zoom calls to discuss a range of topics. But we see less and less of this trend today, with a refocus on political commentary.

Until influencers move past enforcing their own opinions through political commentary, their social media presence will continue to incite little to no influence. Their misuse of platforms to push personal agendas, ridicule others, and gain corporate partnerships, in and of itself answers the initial question. Influencers have yet to influence, they barely stir public opinion.