Over the summer, influencer Kris Schatzel went to a protest against police violence in Los Angeles. While there, she figured she’d do a little bit of work, too: in a video taken that day, she can be seen arranging her hair, swinging her dress into position, clutching her Black Lives Matter sign, and darting into the middle of the protest. Standing idly in the middle of a march, she waits for her photograph to be taken. When the scene was posted to the @InfluencersIntheWild Instagram account, comments accused her of using the movement to further her own social media fame. To Schatzel, this was simply part of the job. “I took a few pictures, since I’m a social media influencer/model,” she wrote in an apology, also posted to Instagram. She continued, “My intent was to spread the message the best way I know how.” For influencers like Schatzel, something as seismic and deeply felt as the Black Lives Matter movement is not terribly different from Fit Tea and teeth-whitening devices: the best way to promote it is through a picture of themselves. (Use code SCHATZEL2020 for 15% off your next social revolution!)
In a year marked by enormous societal upheaval, I’ve been struck by one small, moderately nightmarish shift: the rise of an influencer class that, in an attempt to remain relevant without appearing tone deaf, searches out protests, USPS trucks, or looted stores the way they once chased sunsets. The influencers can’t stop posting; their followers reject silence in the face of dire political circumstances. But they can’t keep posting the same things. As a result, the photoshoot has taken to the streets, and the results are not pretty. This is the birth of the Wokefluencer.
It’s been a challenging stretch for our postmodern class of entertainers. There are a few reasons why influencers are struggling so mightily to adjust to these times, according to Monica Stephens, a professor at University at Buffalo who studies the intersection of politics and social media. “Posting, for influencers, that is their job,” she says. Many don’t put in the time or effort to be “genuinely involved with social organizations, especially organizing for equality and social justice,” she adds. (Taking the time and effort can yield impactful results, though: Patia’s Fantasy World is a great example of using a platform, built on comedy memes, to spread a self-created guide to breaking down racism.)
While some influencers use their platforms to promote niche or local causes, most focus on the broadest possible topic to relate to the broadest possible audience. This is largely a requirement of the job: Stephens points out that none of the subjects the influencers are attempting to promote, whether that’s the Black Lives Matter Movement or the attempted dismantling of the USPS, are unknown causes. On the contrary, with most people at home and major events suspended for many months because of the pandemic, they were in sharper focus than ever before. But the idea of dismantling systemic racism is not like other consensus-forming topics that online figures often center themselves around—pizza, wine, or even jawns.
And so we are witnessing influencers pivot in real time. Knowing your angles and wearing the right hat-and-sunglasses combination are no longer enough to succeed online. The same way shoppers asked brands ranging from Target to Louis Vuitton to sneaker shop Round Two to explicate their values (and then live up to them), fans of influencers are asking them to have a conscience—which influencers then have to communicate via Instagram posts. But how do you make a summer of unrest look enviable?
The influencer has always been a visual animal, blindly chasing exaggerated design and bright colors like a bird during mating season. Even before COVID and the Black Lives Matter protests, influencers flocked to new and increasingly exotic settings to drop themselves into. But in 2020, the influencer has found new backdrops: boarded up and/or looted stores, protests, and even USPS locations are photoshoot sets. “Touching on current events moves the market of attention towards them,” says Stephens. Last year, following the HBO series Chernobyl, influencers (or wannabe influencers) disturbingly traveled to Pripyat, Russia, near the site of the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion to snap photos of themselves. This year has created something more nuanced: an attempt to use these backdrops as compelling content while also signaling virtue or political views.
The Wokefluencer isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon. Stephens points out even before social media, alternative spring break gave a certain stripe of (usually white, usually well-off) college students an opportunity to flex their capacity for empathy. These students would return from their trips with photographs of themselves with needy children or in disaster zones as souvenirs. The difference now is how easy it is now for influencers to dip into a protest or a locked-up mail drop and scrape some of that valor for themselves. “The stakes are much lower,” Stephens says.
If influencers are struggling to meet this moment—and they are!—it is because of the way the moment transcends social media. Instagram is essentially designed to let each user become the subject of any setting, any occurrence, or any calamity. (Think of when a celebrity dies and everyone rushes to post their own personal attachment to the person, or better yet a photo with them.) In 2020, the influencer then has met their match: a moment that can’t be flattened into a photograph.