Influencers and the Influenced: A Deep Dive into Enacting Change on Social Media

By Audrey Wan  

The views expressed in this op-ed are solely from the writer and her friends. They do not necessarily represent the views of NTUSU.  

According to a report by We Are Social published in 2020, over 3.8 billion people are active users of social media. This constitutes almost half of the world’s population. This figure includes a select group known as social media influencers – individuals who have carved out a name for themselves on online platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and other major social hubs. 

Influencers are individuals who have built a reputation for their niche expertise in certain subjects and deliver their content to a large follower base. Brands love them and it’s not too hard to see why – getting an influencer to endorse your product to thousands of their followers is an excellent marketing strategy. 

Whether it is to rally their followers to support a cause or pick up a new product at the supermarket, many believe that influencers should be cognisant of the content they put out because of the sway they hold over others. According to a report by Morning Consult, a whopping 72% of Gen Zs and Millennials follow influencers, and teenagers are more likely to follow many. 

By extension, many individuals have come to the consensus that influencers should tap on the immense power and vast audience they have by speaking up positively about social issues.   

Yet, on the other end of the spectrum, others believe that influencers should not have to shoulder this immense responsibility. To obtain a general sense of where people in my social circles stand on this issue, I took a cue from influencers themselves and posted an Instagram poll, which I urged my followers to vote on. 

Most of my followers were against influencers taking on the responsibility of speaking up about social issues. Photo credit: Instagram @literallyaudrey (https://www.instagram.com/literallyaudrey/?hl=en)

About 30% of my followers concur that influencers’ public platforms entail civic responsibility, especially since their wide follower base and interactive social media tools form the perfect combination for speaking to and mobilising their audience directly.  

For instance, Singapore influencer Preetipls is widely known for using her online platform to spotlight social issues in Singapore and educate her audience. Beyond that, she also harnesses her platform to broadcast information about important general issues, such as Singapore’s 2020 General Election.   

Last year, Preeti not only engaged in dialogues with electoral candidates and publicised these important conversations on her social media, but also hosted live-streamed Q&As with candidates such as Dr Paul Tambyah and Jose Raymong where she collected questions from her Instagram followers. These served to directly educate Preeti’s followers about the electoral candidates’ personal goals and priorities, illuminating relevant facts about the candidates. 

Preeti provides her viewers with both entertainment and meaningful social content. Photo credit: Instagram @preetipls (https://www.instagram.com/preetipls/?hl=en)   

As can be seen, Preeti used her extensive social media reach to directly and candidly speak to her followers about the elections, helping them to stay abreast of the news and make informed decisions.   

Personally, as someone who is interested in keeping up with news but often gets side-tracked by entertaining media content, influencers like Preeti allow me to combine the best of both worlds. Many find that by adding her comedic flair and bold personality to the discussion of important issues, Preeti makes political and social topics much more captivating for our easily distracted minds.   

Celebrities also have an immense capacity to mobilise public engagement in the social causes they are involved in. For instance, iconic actor Leonardo DiCaprio is also an avid climate champion who has donated at least $30 million to environmental causes, attending marches, creating documentaries and travelling across the world to campaign for environmental action. Using his acceptance speech at the 2016 Oscars as a platform, he delivered an impassioned call to action to combat climate change, exhorting the public to “work collectively together and stop procrastinating”.  

In response, unprecedented levels of engagement swept through social media that same day, with a record 250,000 tweets containing the phrase “climate change” or “global warming”. Google searches, many which used DiCaprio’s actual words, spiked so much that it represented the third-highest point ever recorded for climate change or global warming on Google trends. With a single speech watched by 34.5 million people across the globe, DiCaprio incited the largest-ever increase in public engagement with climate change. With the respect they command and the multitude of platforms available for them to engage a massive audience, celebrities are without a doubt some of the biggest change-makers of our times.  

Leonardo DiCaprio addresses the opening session of the UN Climate Summit. Photo credit: “Leonardo DiCaprio” by john.gillespie is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)

Even without the platform of the Oscars, online influencers are impactful advocates. Chris Klemens, a popular American Youtuber who produces comedy content, takes a moment in each video to highlight a specific cause that he urges viewers to support, charismatically expressing how much these causes would stand to benefit.   

Many of these causes received an influx of donations on their GoFundMe pages as Chris’ comment section buzzed with followers discussing further ways to help out. Clearly, influencers possess an incredible ability to inform and create change. Having been motivated to participate in causes by influencers I follow, I can testify to that.   

However, despite this star power, not everyone feels similarly about the responsibilities influencers should have to shoulder. Out of 127 people who responded to my Instagram poll, the 70% majority actually believed that influencers do not have the obligation to speak up on social and political issues.   

One of the reasons raised was that influencers do not necessarily enrich their followers’ social perspectives or incite positive change by simply being more vocal. Ironically, some influencers actually contribute to the mindless noise out there. The rapid flood of content shared by influencers, which then spreads unfiltered to the feeds of their followers, may contain personal viewpoints that are under-researched or irresponsibly presented. This runs the risk of replacing followers’ independent learning about social or political issues, which requires reading up on multiple sources to build a well-rounded perspective.  

This potentially harmful situation also includes influencers sharing their viewpoints on health and nutrition. A study by a team at the University of Glasgow found that almost 90% of social media influencers are sharing inaccurate health information, and often present their opinion as fact. Alarmingly, evidence-based references for nutritional claims also fail to appear on their posts. With so much scientific and medical misinformation being propagated on social media, impressionable followers may implement these influencers’ harmful advice without doing their own research.  

Additionally, some followers brought up the point that putting pressure on influencers to speak up may result in performative activism. This phenomenon is characterised by influencers participating in social causes simply to increase their social capital and appease their followers instead of being truly devoted to inspiring actual change.   

In the #BlackLivesMatter movement that swept across social media last year, many Singaporean influencers posted black squares to demonstrate solidarity with the Black community, yet failed to elaborate on concrete measures for change such as providing links to donation sites or disseminating relevant information for their followers. Those simplistic black squares actually contributed more to the noise, clogging up social media feeds and distracting from posts containing helpful resources. In attempting to broadcast their support for a cause, these influencers detracted from the meaningfulness of the cause instead.  

Perhaps instead of viewing it in black and white, we need to adopt a nuanced view of influencers’ social responsibility. If we hold influencers to the expectation that they will use their platform to promote social causes, it is equally important for us to scrutinise whether or not they follow up with concrete actions in inciting change.  

Of course, no influencer should be forced to speak up about socio-political issues, as it is ultimately their right to decide the content that is published on their platform. However, given that their career revolves around interacting with people, it would be meaningful for them to participate in causes that have such a profound impact on these very same people.