By Pauline Kerr
We have a new word on our radar – influencers. Those unfamiliar with the term might think, from hearing news stories about the recent Cancun party flight, that the word is another way of saying “self-entitled party animal.”
Crowd-surfing, smoking, drinking, no masks – sounds about right.
Apparently, the trip was organized for social media “influencers” and reality television personalities – mostly people who have no particular claim to fame, other than an ability to get noticed and persuade others to buy whatever it is they are selling.
This batch of selfie royals boarded their plane and proceeded to do what they do best – clamored for their followers’ attention through outrageous behaviour. One might suspect this is what the organizer of the flight had in mind – some priceless 10-second video clips and photos. No one knew the name of the organizer before the party flight; they do now. And they will remember long after thoughts of the cases of COVID, the danger to air crew and the threat of substantial fines have faded. These are simply the price of doing business in the high-flying world of social media influencers.
Our world has always had its influencers – both con artists who could charm the scales off a snake, and inspired leaders who could drive the snakes out of Ireland. Influencers have persuaded hundreds of people to kill themselves in the name of warped religion, but they have also galvanized entire nations to fight to victory when defeat seemed certain.
The new millennium has brought a new kind of influencer – social media stars with a gift for looking interesting on a two-inch screen. They tell their followers to hit “like,” and they do. They tell them to buy certain products, and sales shoot up. They quote some long-disproved study by a disgraced doctor, and all of a sudden, a disturbing number of people start shunning a simple, safe and effective way of preventing disease.
Because technology allows them to be with us, in our homes, at work and wherever we go, 24/7, we view them as friends, people we believe and believe in. They have a whale of a good time at a party, and their followers get to share the photos and fun – almost as good as being there.
Most of us realize that someone’s ability to apply makeup or visit restaurants in an entertaining manner might make them a delight to watch for a few minutes but in no way qualifies them to advise on politics, philosophy or what brand of toilet tissue to buy, much less whether to get one’s children vaccinated against measles. However, there are enough people who seem to believe every word uttered by social media influencers that these people have become a factor in many aspects of our society.
It has gone far beyond paying an Olympic medal winner to endorse a particular brand of running shoe. When people are looking to social media influencers for life-and-death medical advice, or even information on how to vote, there needs to be a massive reality check, starting with asking who these influencers are, and why they want us to do something.
This year it was a group of party animals on a plane, trying to persuade their followers they are really fun people. They went way too far – alcohol at 40,000 feet will do that – and instead provided a convincing argument for banning them from using any means of transportation including a city bus, without a babysitter in charge.
A year ago, a much more famous reality-television-star influencer was able to convince a substantial crowd of people, some of whom carried weapons, to storm the American Capitol. Why? He wanted to keep his job so badly he was willing to foment an armed insurrection to do it.
We need to be wiser and more discerning consumers, because where social media influencers are concerned, consumers is what we are – not friends, not followers, just people who buy whatever it is they are selling, be it their “favourite” brand of cola, or something a lot more damaging.