This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.
The adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity has been on my mind this week as I struggle to responsibly cover influencers who are sharing dangerous and misleading information about the COVID-19 vaccine and masking requirements.
As I wrote shortly before the 2020 election, influencers can no longer be apolitical online. Followers want to ensure they are supporting people who share their values, and influencers who remained silent during the election were seen as fake or cagey. This doesn’t only apply to elections, though. Amid the upheaval of 2020 and the politicization of everything from climate change to vaccines, influencers have been taking a stance on a variety of issues, heeding fans’ pleas to use their influence for good.
Earlier this year, I wrote about big influencers who are sharing that they got the COVID-19 vaccine even though they face relentless abuse from anti-vaxxers who brigade their comments en masse. Influencers are so effective at encouraging their followers to get vaccinated that state and city governments around the US have been hiring them to promote vaccine safety. Big pharmacy chains like Walgreens are also partnering with influencers on current campaigns, even though many of the women got vaccinated months ago. In her post as part of the Walgreens campaign this week, Lindsay Silberman told her 180,000 followers that although she got her shot in April, she thinks it is still important to talk about vaccines. “If you haven’t yet made a vaccine appointment, now’s the time,” she wrote.
However, as the weeks go on, I have been disappointed to see some influencers post with increasing regularity about why they aren’t getting the vaccine, or that they are against policies like mask mandates. Many of these women are not big names. Most have around 100,000 or fewer followers, making them respectable but small potatoes in the influencer ecosystem. Yet, these small names are being buzzed about online because of their harmful viewpoints. After watching one woman post more and more about her anti-vax thoughts this week, I began to wonder, Is this a grift?
I’ve gotten a lot of Instagram messages asking me to “call out” some of these people. One woman, in particular, has been flagged to me multiple times since she went on a few rants this week against masking in schools. She is a low-level blogger with around 100,000 followers, which gets her brand deals, for sure, but doesn’t make her a huge name. (I am not naming her on purpose.)
Her Instagram stories about masks, though, seem to be good for her bottom line. According to Social Blade, she has gained 540 followers this month. Her supporters are also blowing up her comments, telling her she is a hero for standing up for the rights of kids.
But is it the right move for me to call this woman out by name, publicly? I could name her in this newsletter, exposing her to a huge BuzzFeed News audience and beyond, and call her out on my Instagram. One of her sponsors may see the story and drop her. But I may just cement her as a leading voice in the anti-mask ecosystem, driving more supporters to her cause. By trying to raise awareness about individuals behaving badly on a platform that does little to regulate their harmful rhetoric, am I helping them get more famous?
Take the case of Amanda Ensing, a makeup YouTuber who made headlines last year when she began to publicly share her support of then-president Trump and other conservative causes. (One headline from Glossy reads, “What happens when a major beauty influencer supports the Capitol mob?” Yikes!)
Amanda’s pivot to a pro-Trump, right-wing influencer has actually been great for her. She now has around 1.45 million followers, about 20,000 more than she did in June 2020 (and that’s after losing a fair amount in January 2021, when she openly supported the Capitol mob). She lost around 50,000 YouTube subscribers in that time — but, considering that her content has completely changed (she now goes on rants about cancel culture), that still is pretty impressive.
Amanda has also found a new career as a young, hot, and anti-woke liberal crusader for conservatives, who cheered her on when she launched a boycott against Sephora earlier this year for canceling her contract over her actions surrounding the Capitol riot. She’s also made appearances on Newsmax and Fox News. Amanda may have damaged her influencer career, but she has a new, potentially even more lucrative one as a conservative star.
The truth is that people will unfollow an influencer who shares harmful anti-vax and anti-science beliefs, but there are just as many people who will follow them for “speaking out” about these exact beliefs. When dealing with low-level influencers, I’m just not sure calling them out is a net positive. When someone already isn’t that influential, it seems better to ignore them.
That’s not to say there is nothing we can do to make sure people with a substantial following and harmful viewpoints face consequences. Reaching out to sponsors works. Reporting people to Instagram works. Unfollowing them works. In general, though, I think starving bad actors of oxygen is the best policy. The best way to ensure these harmful viewpoints don’t spread is to ignore them as best we can.
I admit, though, I am struggling with this one. I would love your takes. Feel free to email me by responding to this newsletter, or shoot me a DM on Instagram.