The definition of the word bullying is “the abuse and mistreatment of a vulnerable person by someone stronger and more powerful.”
It’s a word that gets liberally thrown around the online world, and sometimes it’s justified, particularly in the case of young people being belittled by nameless peers hiding behind anonymous accounts.
At other times, it’s deployed as a convenient weapon against people speaking out about something that doesn’t suit the agenda of a particular cohort. “You’re bullying us,” they cry, when actually all that has happened is that a spotlight has been shone on practices that are, quite frankly, dubious or unsavoury. This happened over the weekend in the social influencer world, and to be truthful, I’m glad that somebody has finally lanced what has become a festering boil.
Before I discuss the situation, let me set the scene. Social influencers have become the darlings of the advertising and marketing worlds, particularly those endeavouring to attract a youthful audience. There’s nothing startling about that because star wattage has always been harnessed to sell goods, which is why celebrities, models and sportspeople get lucrative endorsement deals from brands.
It would be fair to say that the majority of the top social media darlings in Ireland are attractive, savvy women operating in the fields of beauty, fashion and fitness. Some write blogs or vlog on YouTube, while others are Snapchat or Instagram stars who also dabble in Facebook and Twitter. The vast majority do a bit of all of it, in order to keep the numbers of eyes on them high and the influence far-reaching.
Those who follow them get an access-all-areas insight into their daily lives, and the cast of of people who surround them. There are some influencers whose children appear so regularly, I’m more familiar with them than my friends’ children.
Influencers can also make money through affiliate links, where they get commission if someone follows a link to purchase a product. Many also hold fashion and beauty workshops and masterclasses, where followers pay up to €100 to attend.
So far so good, as there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of that. The problem is that while many top Irish influencers and bloggers are scrupulously honest and transparent about their modus operandi and have built up exemplary businesses, quite a few are not. Let me count the ways…..
Some influencers regularly post images of themselves looking gorgeously beautiful, toned and tanned. The problem is that these images are heavily curated, edited and Photoshopped, and are not accurate representations of what the women actually look like. As the aunt of two young nieces, it incenses me that doctored images of perfection are used to shill beauty and fashion products to impressionable followers.
Influencers are not the only ones at it, of course, as most regular people love a good filter and a bit of Facetune. They’re leading the pack though and are setting impossibly high standards that other women strive, and generally fail, to achieve.
Our young girls are bombarded with unrealistic images online on a daily basis, and it’s no wonder their levels of anxiety and self-loathing are at an all-time high. We have a crisis on our hands, which isn’t helped by the online emphasis on perfection and physical appearances. To see how far that can go, you only have to take the example of beautiful 11-year-old Milly Tuomey, who died through suicide in 2016 after stating that she was unhappy with how she looked.
The other issue is that some of our influencers have altered their appearance through surgical and non-surgical enhancements. That’s no problem as long as they aren’t suggesting that they enhanced their looks through the use of products they are paid to endorse.
I have no problem with people having Botox - I have it myself because I’m 49 and this ageing face is falling asunder. It’s a different matter when impressionable teenagers and very young women are being influenced into getting it for the correction of perceived flaws.
When the influencer world took off here, it seemed to take a while for the ASAI to impress the need for transparency upon those collaborating with brands. After a long period where many didn’t admit that they were being paid for endorsements, most now adhere to the rules and tag their posts with #ad or #sp. However, many of us think it’s still a murky area.
The influencers film themselves on a daily basis unveiling gifts and products of considerable value from companies, driving cars loaned to them, staying in fancy hotels and taking gifted holidays. They’re not being paid, they assure us, but I don’t know. It would seem like benefit-in-kind to the rest of us.
They also endorse products belonging to companies who regularly employ them, while swearing that they’re not being paid for that particular promotion. Some hint at things they want and feign surprise when they get delivered, while others pretend to have purchased things that were clearly gifted.
It’s important to note that I’m not pointing the finger at anyone in particular or referencing anyone whose name has been bandied about online over the weekend; more that we, as consumers, are becoming increasingly aware and sceptical of what we see from influencer behaviour around the world.
These influencers are making an absolute fortune from the loyalty of their followers, and they seem to carry out these actions with impunity.
So why haven’t people spoken out about these matters? Well here’s the thing. Many influencers have teams curating their online presence, and any negative or questioning comment is quickly deleted and the offender blocked. Some influencers get great use from deploying the ‘cease and desist’ letter.
In other words, dissenters are quickly shut down and branded “haters.”
There are online forums dedicated to the topic of social influencers and I have been monitoring them for quite a while now. Rather than the “jealous bitches” and “haters” and trolls that I expected to find, the majority of women on these forums were asking intelligent, nuanced and pertinent questions about the subjects I’ve just raised.
Most of them admired the influencers and found them entertaining to watch, but were unhappy with those they perceived to be engaging in duplicity and distortion. There was the odd harsh comment, but in general, they were just calling out deceitful practices in an entirely reasonable manner. Interestingly, some had managed to locate identical products to those being shilled here on online Asian sites, retailing at a tenth of the price.
This swell of discontent has been rippling under the surface of the influencer world for months, and the dam finally burst over the weekend when an Instagram account called @BullshitCallerOuter debuted. It posted side-by-side images taken of some influencers in earlier years, paired with current images showing obvious facial differences, such as apparently enhanced lips.
Other posts - and these were the more eyebrow-raising ones - showed candid images taken by other people at events or screen-grabbed from TV interviews. These were paired with the images the women posted themselves, in which they were miraculously thinner and more toned and tanned. In some cases, the difference was startling.
The appearance of this account set the online world ablaze, and I have never seen anything else garner as much attention in the arena of Irish influencers. Some followers seemed genuinely shocked that the carefully curated images they were used to influencers presenting were, in fact, doctored.
Others were delighted that the house of cards they had been discussing among themselves for months was finally tumbling down. Interestingly, the overwhelming consensus was that the women looked perfectly fine and lovely as they originally were, and there was no need for the manipulation of images to present unrealistic versions of themselves.
As the posts appeared and the online chatter got louder, some in the influencing world seemed enraged. They and their friends took to their personal accounts to complain furiously about bullies and trolls, and there was fighting talk of them coming together to form an influencer group to tackle online bullying and “shut those pages down.”
As the weekend progressed however, the swell of critical voices grew louder. As if emboldened by the momentum, the scales fell from loyal followers’ eyes and they began to call the influencers out.
Seemingly aghast they didn’t get the universal sympathy they expected, some influencers went into damage limitation mode, backtracking, deleting posts, changing tack and deflecting criticism. There were those who seemed to miss the point altogether, and astonishingly equated their situation with children being bullied at school because they had spots or were gay.
So were these women being bullied and trolled? I don’t think so. I have no doubt that they were vexed at the loss of image control and hurt at the backlash from followers, but their reactions are highly offensive to anyone who has been genuinely bullied.
Secondly, this is a group of powerful, wealthy, influential women, who are as far from being vulnerable as you can possibly get. Being bullied? No. Being called to account? Absolutely.
Rather than painting themselves as the victims, I would suggest that the influencers take a long, hard look at themselves and honestly reflect on whether they have ever used questionable means to persuade fans to line their own pockets?
Instead of using their combined influence to shut dissenting pages down,I would posit that they'd be better off developing a collective conscience around persuading impressionable young women that overpriced, cheaply-produced goods are miracle fixes.
I would genuinely love to see the emphasis shifting from people worrying less about their physical appearance and more about what’s actually going on in their heads. Why not harness all that influence you wield around enhancing your followers’ confidence and self-belief rather than their physical features, eh girls? Why not direct your proven leadership skills and star wattage towards addressing the very real and troublesome issues that women face in this country?
Happily, I sense a shifting tide where people are now gravitating to those who make them laugh or think on social media, and those who speak about real issues and tackle deeper and more meaningful subjects. There are many of them online and they’re a joy to watch, rather than those focused on constantly trying to make a quick buck from devoted young followers.
If this latest development is anything to go by, some influencers may find that change is badly needed. If not, the empires they have built on truly flimsy foundations will come tumbling down around their perfectly lovely ears.