As the US and the world waited last week to see who would be the next president, some corners of social media seemed to be untouched by the anxiety and drama. Some influencers posted try-on hauls and skincare routines, undeterred by the fact that the rest of us were glued to CNN. But it fell flat.
Earlier this year, I wrote that “the era of influencers being apolitical online is over.” Followers were beginning to notice which of their faves had failed to acknowledge the many real issues that came to the fore in 2020 — issues that are systemic and decades-old — and were starting to punish influencers who stayed silent. And the influencers, who historically had found it easier to remain “neutral” in order to appeal to as many people as possible and not make waves, had to reevaluate.
Many top influencers saw this and spoke up. They spent the weekend celebrating Joe Biden’s win and Kamala Harris’s historic ascension to the second-highest office in the country. And they were not apologizing for it.
And even though they got hateful comments and DMs and lost hundreds or even thousands of followers, the influencers said it felt good.
“I feel like influencers 100% have a responsibility to speak up about human rights, social justice, etc.,” Tomi Obebe, who blogs at GoodTomiCha, told BuzzFeed News. “We’ve built these amazing platforms that can reach thousands of people, but what’s the point if we waste it solely focusing on superficial topics? I’m not saying they have to become C-SPAN and report every little thing, but silence about issues that are timely and geographically relevant speaks volumes."
Carly Riordan, who has blogged for more than a decade at Carly the Prepster, said that for her, this election felt different. It was “beyond who I was voting for,” she told BuzzFeed News, and she knew she had to address it.
“I felt a personal conviction to explicitly say what I believed and what I was voting for. I was voting for immigrants, the Black community, the reproductive rights of women, people who identify as LBGTQ+,” she said. “I was voting for character.”
This year on Instagram has brought us the underwhelming “black square” amid the worldwide fight for racial justice, the explosion of disinformation and the spread of the QAnon mass delusion to suburban housewives, and a pandemic that has laid bare inequalities off- and online. With their influence comes great responsibility, and influencers felt the need to step up to the challenge.
Watching Instagram after the election, I could feel that there has been a seismic shift. 2020 is bringing us a new version of the Instagram influencer, and they are no longer staying out of the fray.
“No one is saying you have to turn your feed into CNN, but, damn, if you can’t even tell people to vote and provide resources for that or acknowledge the historical moment of a woman being VP...I don’t have time for that,” Cathy Peshek, who blogs at Poor Little It Girl, told BuzzFeed News. “Unfollow.”
Nikki Gamble, who posts at @newtexacali, shared her thoughts on the election several times over the course of the past week, even taking a few days off from social media around election day, telling her followers, “This is a monumental election, and I did not want to distract from it in any way.” She said she felt a responsibility to share her thoughts not only as a Black woman and mother but as an influencer.
“I’ll lose followers and or a brand partnership or two but who are we as people if we stand for nothing?!” she wrote.
That’s not to say it has been easy. Influencers who have posted about voting for Biden told me they have lost followers, which affects their revenue in the middle of a pandemic, and have received hateful messages. They watched, disappointed, as some of their peers ignored the election entirely, leaving some to even unfollow their friends. But they are proud of the decisions they have made.
Peshek estimates she lost about 1,000 followers the week after the election. She said, “I legit had messages that I shouldn't be a mom because I voted for Biden–Harris and they believe in aborting babies full term.” However, she said, she can take the heat. She feels a duty to use her platform for good and said influencers need to internalize the lessons from the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I think the performative actions of sharing a black square and then being radio silent since (re: BLM, voting, etc.) is beyond disgusting and self-serving,” Peshek said. She added that she has drawn strength from “the number of amazing DMs [she’s] received from all women, white, Black, Latina, etc., saying, ‘thank you for speaking up.’”
After posting about the election, Obebe shared that she had gotten messages telling her to stay out of politics and that she had lost a few hundred followers. One told her if she wanted to be a more “big-time” blogger, she should keep her opinions to herself.
In a post sharing the message, Obebe told her followers that as a Black woman in America, she could not be true to herself and not discuss her lived experiences.
“I started my blog five years ago because I didn’t see other creators that looked like me. I’ve shared about the need for more representation and inclusion in media, race, and politics pretty much since day one. … I’m not oblivious to the fact that my thoughts on the state of this country can make people feel uncomfortable. Good,” she wrote in part.
Obebe thinks followers should expect more from influencers than just the superficial.
“If we push businesses that we support to share their commitment to social responsibility, why can’t we do the same for influencers?” she said.
And her followers have cheered her on. “There’s nothing better than seeing the influence you have beyond the material things,” one wrote.
Gamble told BuzzFeed News she has also received support. Though she lost around 200 followers, she said the backlash has been “minimal.”
“I pride myself on being straightforward,” she said. “I have cultivated a community that understands and respects that. I've received significantly more support than backlash.”
Riordan agreed that her influence can extend beyond just giving people shopping and lifestyle advice. After speaking out about racial justice in July, she said, “I lost a bunch of followers and I really couldn't have been bothered.”
She added, “If my content no longer served them, it no longer served them. But it was important to me that people of marginalized groups knew there was space for them in my community.”
She agreed that the old ways of doing things on the platform were over, saying she believed influencers can choose to remain silent — but that silence will now likely come with a price.
“Consumers are savvy,” she said. “We want to know our clothes are made ethically, that employees are treated well, that they care about the environment. ... Of course people care what brands stand for and stand behind. Influencers aren't that different and, in fact, when the brand is a person it's probably even more relevant where that person stands.”
When Robertson posted last Saturday that she voted for Biden, she said she lost “a ton” of followers and got some hate. She had never really posted about current events before this year, but she began to worry her silence could be interpreted as being supportive of Trump.
Another thing has changed for her, though: After years of working hard to grow a thicker skin online, Robertson said the hate she is getting doesn’t bother her. She has found confidence in knowing she’s doing the right thing.
“Something needs to change. And having a platform, I felt that it was part of our duty to help in any way we can,” she said. “Even just one vote or one mindset changed would be worth all the followers lost and all the angst from people.”
In many ways, 2020 has brought to Instagram a new meaning of influence. These women say they will always continue to promote lifestyle content, but they now also want to influence the minds and convictions of their followers and be their most authentic selves.
“No, my blog and Instagram are not politically centered,” Riordan said, “but it is centered around my life — and my life isn't in a vacuum, unaffected by what's going on around.”
For Peshek, the responsibility is a calling.
“Women like Kamala are the reason you’re able to own your own business and do what you want. … Trailblazers and the fact one is now a heartbeat away from the presidency is historical and worth acknowledging,” she said.