After the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, countless women flooded social media with tribute posts, photos, and memories of the venerated feminist. For one corner of the internet, though, the moment became a reckoning.
Women in a Facebook group for fans of blogger and influencer Lauryn Evarts Bosstick, who goes by the Skinny Confidential, hoped to chat with other women about the death of an icon. Instead, former members of the once-56,000-person-strong group claim, posts about RBG were deleted. After some women complained, Bosstick abruptly shut down the group. Shortly after, she posted to her 1 million followers on Instagram that she wanted to keep her group free of politics and religion in order to “try and keep a POSITIVE space,” but the group had become a place of “negativity” and women “tearing down” other women.
People online were pissed, as were members of the group, who soon founded new, unaffiliated Facebook groups. In a blog post she shared with BuzzFeed News, Bosstick denied that she shut the group down because of the political topics being discussed (even though she noted she originally didn’t want politics in the group) but rather because it “became a hateful negative space.”
Bosstick’s attempt to keep her Facebook page free of anything she deemed controversial may have once seemed admirable, a normal response from a lifestyle blogger looking to keep things light. But this year, politics, social justice issues, and current events are inextricable from our daily lives. It’s hard to have a conversation about literally anything without the context of everything going on. The coronavirus has us all socially distanced and unsure what the holidays will look like. The racial justice movement is sweeping through workplaces around the nation. The economic collapse is impacting millions of Americans, with hundreds of thousands of people out of work or running even tighter household budgets.
What Bosstick’s case shows is clear: The era of influencers being apolitical online is over. Influencers who continue to post their usual content without acknowledging the realities of this country face the risk of appearing so laughably out of touch that it renders anything else they have to say irrelevant. And as we get closer and closer to Nov. 3, an influencer who remains silent about one of the most consequential US elections in history may risk alienating and angering their followers in such a deep way that would be impossible to recover from.
Bosstick is not alone. Fans of The Morning Toast, the internet pop culture podcast run by controversial sisters Claudia and Jackie Oshry, told me over the summer that the cohosts silence or brushing-off of current events, and their refusal to acknowledge the hateful views of their anti-Muslim mother Pamela Geller, led them to disassociate from the Oshrys en masse. Betches, a women’s website, just shut down its Facebook group for brides, citing similar negativity and infighting to Bosstick’s group. A former member of the group told BuzzFeed News that members had expressed anger that political posts were being deleted. (A spokesperson for Betches told BuzzFeed News they "recently decided to close down the Betches Brides Facebook Group because many women were shaming each other for things way beyond their wedding choices.")
Many influencers have embraced the new normal and have been able to mix their own political beliefs, discussion of human rights issues like Black Lives Matter, coronavirus safety, and more with their usual content. This goes for both sides of the political spectrum. Influencers who lean right-wing have found new audiences in recent months by leaning hard into MAGA — and also child sex trafficking awareness, which is usually a veiled reference to QAnon, a mass delusion that believes President Donald Trump is breaking up huge Democrat-run child abuse rings. The only thing that isn’t working is silence.
Since Trump won the presidency in 2016, it has become less and less possible for public figures to remain silent on their views, even if they belong to spaces that traditionally didn’t wade into the fray. Shortly after the election, women's and teen girls' magazines, most notably Teen Vogue, began to overtly call for resistance against Trump in ways they never had before. Sports stars began to speak out for Black Lives Matter — the words are literally on the NBA courts — and young actors began to use their social platforms to speak directly to their audiences about politics.
One of the most prominent examples is Taylor Swift, who, after years of silence on her political views, forcefully came out against Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn on Instagram in 2018. Swift has since openly criticized Trump and urged her fans to vote in the election. (She has been criticized for taking so long to reveal her political leanings, and for having the privilege to speak up on her own terms.)
“In the past I’ve been reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions, but due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now,” she wrote in that first post.
In the 2020 documentary Miss Americana, filmmakers captured the tension surrounding Swift’s decision to speak her mind on Instagram, with her team visibly nervous it would harm her brand. This tension is the same one playing out across Instagram today. Influencers, who are mostly women and whose content is mostly consumed by women, have long been siloed into the misogynist idea that because they write about things traditionally coded for women, they should have no opinion about more “serious topics.” Like Swift, influencers traditionally feared that if they didn’t stick to these safe, light topics and “stay in their lane,” they risked alienating their audiences and the brands that support them.
It’s an internal struggle that Shana Draugelis knows well. Draugelis, who founded a motherhood and lifestyle blog called the Mom Edit, told BuzzFeed News that her website has never “shied away from hard topics.” She shared updates with her readers about having breast cancer and has discussed topics like human rights, climate change, and issues facing mothers alongside more lighthearted fashion and parenting posts. However, there was one issue she didn’t discuss.
“I had made a conscious decision to touch on important topics but to stay away from politics,” Draugelis said. Even though she didn’t touch on anything overtly political, she said, she began to face “increasing criticism about how ‘political’ some of [her] articles are.”
“Instead of being about science, our articles on climate change are now ‘political,’” she said. “When we spoke out against family separation, that wasn’t a human rights violation, it was ‘political.’ And now with Black Lives Matter and the pandemic? Oh boy. ‘Stay in your lane!’”
As the Trump presidency progressed, Draugelis said, the lines began to blur.
“What has become really tricky, in 2020, is that we can no longer talk about the big, important issues without inherently talking politics,” she said. “The Trump presidency has been so polarizing that the sad result is the blurring of lines between basic human rights, science, and politics. And I find that really scary.”
Draugelis's dilemma is one that many influencers are facing. Even if they ostensibly want to stay silent on the election and discussions about politics, they feel a moral obligation to speak out about the big issues of our time, mainly the Black Lives Matter movement and COVID-19. After George Floyd was killed by police in late May and the Blackout Tuesday movement on Instagram, many Black influencers told me they could no longer be silent on the ways the platform was failing Black creatives. They called on both Black and white influencers to demand change in the industry. Many white influencers answered the call, feeling they needed to speak up and be on the right side of history. They felt compelled to “pick a side” in our increasingly polarized country.
In a perfect world, saying that Black lives matter or telling your followers to wear a mask and respect COVID-19 protocols would not be a political debate. However, the Trump administration has made them political. Thus, influencers who speak out about these important topics are sometimes criticized as “wading into politics.” Draugelis is still struggling with that.
“If these stances are now political stances, ones that clearly align with one party should we just embrace it? Or is there any value in trying to keep that separation between human rights and politics?” she said.
Julia Dzafic, who blogs at Lemon Stripes, is one of many lifestyle influencers who has been posting about Black Lives Matter, anti-racism, and the election alongside her normal content this summer. She told BuzzFeed News that she dabbled for years in sharing her political views on her Instagram stories but stepped it up this year.
“Given everything that has happened this year in our country, and given that this election is the most important of our lifetime, I feel that being silent is no longer an option,” she said.
Dzafic is also working to better inform herself about what she shares, saying she makes sure to now review “multiple reputable sources before posting on a political topic.” She gets a ton of hate, but accepts it.
“On the days when I’m feeling really fragile, I don’t post about politics. But when I can handle the heat, I do it,” she said.
For those influencers who would rather stay silent to avoid alienating people on either side of the political spectrum, the choice may soon be made for them. Followers are starting to notice which influencers are staying silent, and for many audiences it is a breaking point.
To get a sense of how people on Instagram feel, I conducted an (extremely unscientific) poll on my stories. Around 5,000 people responded, and the results made clear that people notice when an influencer ignores the multiple elephants in the 2020 room. Of those surveyed, 81% said they have noticed when an influencer has ignored politics, the election, Black Lives Matter, or COVID-19; 58% said they unfollowed someone because of this omission.
A whopping 75% said they had unfollowed an influencer after realizing they didn’t agree with their political views, and 78% said they do not think an influencer can remain relevant while being completely apolitical and/or avoiding discussing current events. When it came to the election specifically, most people said they wouldn’t unfollow someone simply over not posting about it.
Many people also messaged me to share their viewpoints. While some said they didn’t care if influencers remained silent, they were in the minority. The overwhelming majority of people told me that if an influencer ignored the huge social justice issues happening right now, like Black Lives Matter or the disproportionate number of BIPOC dying of COVID-19, they would unfollow them. Respondents told me it just seemed completely out of touch to not acknowledge society’s issues right now. Many others said they don’t expect influencers to necessarily say whom they are voting for or to lobby for a candidate but added that staying completely silent is a dealbreaker.
This has been further complicated by QAnon spreading like wildfire on the platform among influencers. As the pandemic worsened in the spring, several formerly innocuous lifestyle, fashion, or parenting bloggers began to post about the collective delusion, culminating in a huge outpouring of posts about the Wayfair and #SaveTheChildren conspiracy theories. With so many influencers now pivoting to using their platform for misinformation, the need for factual commentary and information is more necessary than ever.
For many, it all comes down to what exactly the role of an influencer is in our society. Yes, we all love the style recommendations and recipes — but influencers also have, well, influence. And with this power comes a responsibility.
Jeremy Jacobowitz, an influencer and food blogger at Brunch Boys, told BuzzFeed News he thinks the events of 2020 are exposing some influencers as superficial, and it will ultimately hurt their brands.
“Let me use my platform to make a real change, and I think my community has a deeper appreciation for everything that I post about now,” he said. “The account that just eats cake every day and shows ignorance to the real world may not lose followers, but they will lose ‘influence.’”
Dzafic agreed, saying she recognizes the power of having a following.
“If you have a voice that people listen to,” she said, “it is your responsibility to use it.”