On Wednesday evening, as a violent mob stormed the US Capitol, several top influencers reached a breaking point.
Big personalities who have shied away from most political talk in the past, notably Emily Herren of Champagne and Chanel, Rachel Parcell of Pink Peonies, and Naomi Davis of Love Taza, acknowledged the insurrection on their Instagram stories. To put this in context, all three had remained mostly silent about the 2020 election — not to mention everything else that has transpired over the past year.
Apparently, an attempted coup is what could compel them to address current events. Emily wrote that it was a “sad day” for our country, and the actions of the mob would “never be” justified. Naomi called the incident “terrifying” and said she hoped everyone in DC “stayed safe.” Rachel complained that she got hateful messages from “both political parties” no matter what she posted, but said she is praying for peace and unity. I’ve reached out to all three for comment.
The overall response on Instagram among influencers on Wednesday night, from what I saw on my feeds, was split roughly into thirds: Some spoke out about it, some stopped posting, and some continued with their usual content. Many influencers who spoke out about politics for the first time during the 2020 elections, some of whom I profiled last year, spent a significant amount of time on their stories discussing and decrying what was going on, and urging their fellow influencers to cease any paid content or off-topic remarks. Many people also posted that they were planning to unfollow any influencer who kept on with business as usual, as they couldn’t in good conscience follow someone who ignored what was going on.
Some people might be thinking, Who cares? Plenty of people would say that even asking the question of how influencers are responding to this huge and dark moment is pointless. They argue that it either is not the job of influencers to share their opinions on world events, or, if they do share, we shouldn’t care what they say anyway.
I have argued for months that this opinion is misguided, writing in November that it was imperative that influencers address the election in order to remain relevant. The events on Wednesday have only further strengthened this belief.
This horror should reinforce for all of us that what happens online matters. Online influence matters. It’s easy to dismiss influencers as mostly silly women flitting about sharing swipe ups online. Who cares what they say, or do, right? No. This opinion is frankly, ignorant (and sexist), and it’s increasingly dangerous.
Emily, for example, has more than 1 million followers. That’s 1 million real people who watch what she does every day, and whom she has the power to influence with the post of an Instagram story. She can get thousands of people to buy a shirt, sure, but she also can expose a million people to her ideas. That’s a ton of power — and a ton of responsibility.
If you don’t believe me, consider what happened yesterday. The armed mob was, of course, instigated by President Donald Trump. But they also bought into a movement of disinformation, rage, and violence that was born and then flourished on the internet, especially social media. NBC News’ Brandy Zadrozny said it best, writing on Wednesday, “They've been saying they would do this for years. YEARS. Threatening a second civil war and violence. And no one listened. Because it was just online.”
Reporters like Brandy and other experts in online disinformation (NBC News’ Ben Collins, the New York Times’ Charlie Warzel, and my own colleagues Jane Lytvynenko and Craig Silverman) have been beating the drumbeat that we need to pay attention to the rhetoric emerging from these increasingly scary online communities for the past several months. And in 2020 I noticed the QAnon collective delusion and other far-right conspiracy theories slowly beginning to creep onto Instagram.
Disinformation arrived onto Instagram in the spring as COVID-19 raged across the US, cloaked in a Trojan horse of pastel Canva graphics. It was spouted by influencers who formerly posted about parenting or fashion under the guise of “saving the children” or “human trafficking awareness.” It started slowly at first, a few slides here or there interspersed with filtered videos of their children or in between LikeToKnowIt swipe-up links. Some of these women, like Rebecca Pfeiffer of LuvBec, had more than 100,000 followers when they started doing this. She soon pivoted to almost exclusively covering theories from QAnon on her account before it was deleted by Instagram in the fall.
The power that Instagram and these influencers have on their followers is incredible. Take Bec. Her original Instagram account is now gone, but she has 28,000 followers on Parler and 17,000 on a new Instagram account. How many of these people first learned about QAnon from Bec? How many people's minds have been poisoned into believing lies fed directly to them through her influence? I’ve reached out to her for comment.
Another woman, a young mother named Lexie, was able to go from having no social media clout whatsoever to becoming an Instagram star in a few months by repackaging horrifying QAnon delusions into cute Instagram graphics through her account, Little Miss Patriot. I’ve reached out to her for comment. She had nearly 300,000 followers before her account was kicked off Instagram (she is now on her 10th account, which has grown to 25,000 followers since her ninth was kicked off Instagram on Wednesday night). She spent the day celebrating what was happening in DC.
This is why it is critical that influencers use their power responsibly. Influencers can be like Bec and lead people astray into frightening, dangerous rabbit holes. Or they could be like Emily. By criticizing the mob at the Capitol, Emily may have caused some of her followers to pause and consider how they felt about everything going on. She is the fiancé of a police officer from Texas; it’s not a stretch to imagine she has followers with similar backgrounds. What if her posting this made some of them change their minds about what was going on? What if it made them read more than they would have and educate themselves? Or, if she had kept posting her normal content, how many of her followers would take that as an implicit OK to ignore the news as well?
That is real, concrete power. The influence wielded by these people needs to be taken seriously, and they need to take it seriously. They need to be stewards of the great amount of responsibility given to them. Their audience needs them to share accurate information, be accountable, be on the right side of history, and not lead them astray. Millions of followers are counting on them.