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(Revised from its initial publication on February 26, 2020)

Many buzzwords describe social movements and their associated grifters, but there is no word quite as triggering as the phrase ‘influencer.’

There has been a noticeable rise in the last few years of self-branded Instagram personas showing off their effortless fashion and seemingly limitless travel budgets, all wrapped up inside the bow of a perfect life — and a heavy sponsorship.

With the introduction of TikTok and its massive impact on popular culture, influencer culture has become even more inauthentic. TikTok has ushered in an entirely new way of influencing that is even more insidious and difficult to detect. Until recently, users did not have to disclose that a brand-sponsored them overtly. Thousands of videos flooded users’ ‘For You’ Pages without the distinction between ads and organic content. This is just the tip of the iceberg. 

Humans are inherently nosey, which is the entire reason why influencer culture has taken off. In fact, according to data analytics company Klear’sanalysis, the number of Instagram posts using the #ad hashtag, signifying a brand partnership, increased by almost 50% in 2019.

There’s also the simple fact that we live vicariously through these personalities and their glamorous lifestyles to distract us from the impending ‘doom of the week.’ We’re just trying to pretend that everything’s okay by scrolling through the perfect lives of influencers.

But there’s another reason why influencers are so abundant; the idea that just a few years ago, this glamorous human was just like you and me. The allure of becoming a self-made millionaire by simply posting content people want to see keeps us not only coming back for more but also inspires us to make content of our own.

However, there’s an unseen issue within this culture. Most of these influencers aren’t even living the lifestyle they portray. Many of these people are living these unattainable lives, enhanced by photoshop and lies, which in turn has thousands of young girls striving to reach this non-existent lifestyle.

What the Influencer Lifestyle Is…Or Isn’t

The point of this piece isn’t to drag influencers. But, it’s important to note the shift in habits that consumers, especially the young and impressionable ones, are displaying since the rise of influencing.

The most notable offenders of perpetuating influencer culture are the Kardashian/Jenner clan. All members of this blended family have made questionable decisions regarding what they are promoting on Instagram, and some missteps are more sinister than others.

For instance, Kim has come under fire numerous times for promoting a dangerous product called Flat Tummy Tea. There are a few aspects of this to unpack.

1. Whatever she’s promoting, she’s promoting to 159 million followers. When you have a vast reach, you must be honest and responsible when deciding what content to post.

2. The chemicals in this particular tea aren’t FDA-approved and could harm the young audiences K is promoting it to.

3. It’s no secret (nor is it an issue) that Kim looks the way she does thanks to surgical enhancement, but promoting any weight loss supplements comes off as a little gratuitous.

The kicker of it all is that this family is not lacking in funds. There is no good reason for them to continuously shill harmful products for six figures when Kylie alone is a literal billionaire.

This brings me to my next point: being an influencer is a pretty good gig if you have the following.

Being a celebrity influencer like the family I mentioned is one thing. But it’s an entirely different ballgame to get paid six figures when you’re just a person who “influences.”

For example, Chiara Ferragni started as your typical fashion blogger. Today, she boasts over 15 million Instagram followers and can command a salary of 12 thousand dollars per post, reaching over 40 million monthly users and 13 million followers. So, you can see there’s a ton of cash to be made in influencing if you’ve got the reach. And If you don’t have quite the reach, you’ll do some outlandish stuff to obtain that volume of followers. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Regarding promotion, the Kardashians may be fairly deceptive, but that was only the tip of the iceberg when considering that they already had the following.

One of the most notable examples of influencers being dishonest in what they’re selling was hatched out of a colossal drama: the James Charles and Tati Westbrook feud.

For those who don’t know these names, James Charles is a beauty influencer with a massive following of 16 million YouTube subscribers and 16 million Instagram followers. Tati Westbrook is another beauty guru that boasts around 10 million YouTube subscribers and 3 million Instagram followers.

One of the pillars that lifted the feud was that Charles was promoting another controversial product when his best pal Tati was launching her version.

Charles alleged that Sugar Bear Hair approached him at Coachella and offered him some cash and heightened security if he’d promote their products… which he’s never tried. And he did exactly that. This, in turn, spiraled into a nasty, personal feud resulting in numerous videos (both attacking and apologizing) and the #ByeSister trend.

The act of an influencer not trying the product they’re promoting is far too familiar when considering the impressionable audience that Instagram fosters. It goes without saying how ethically shameful it is to shill a product you’ve never used for 13-year-olds.

TikTok Creates New Insecurities

TikTok has conjured up some backlash for its failures to moderate harmful content and the influence of its algorithm. The algorithm recommends content based on the user’s previous activity on the app, and it’s more specific and targeted than any other platform in existence…to an alarming degree. A recent study from Eating Disorder Hope pointed out that “it is a highly visual environment in which appearance ideals and the pursuit of thinness are promoted. The interactive nature provides boundless opportunities for appearance comparisons and appearance-related interactions with peers… (and) appears to contribute to increases in disordered eating.” 

That said, the platform has bred an entirely new type of influencer equipped with many tools to be more dishonest. However, as sneaky influencer practices become more pronounced, users have become more discerning. Especially since users trust TikTok recommendations more than any other platform. Gen Z has undoubtedly spearheaded this cultural shift. 

There’s a desire for brands and influencers to be authentic, sharing real-life stories and proudly standing up for what they believe in. There’s also a desire for unfiltered, unretouched content. Marketing Divenotes that 82% of Gen Z say they’re more trusting of brands that use real customers and stories in their advertising.

A new survey of industry experts indicated that 49% of consumers depend on the recommendations influencers give them. This trust is hinged on the belief that influencers are entirely transparent, which isn’t always the case.

Take beloved beauty blogger Mikayla Nogueirafor example. Nogueira quickly rose to internet fame by showcasing her authentic, down-to-earth personality and honest makeup reviews. Her thick Bostonian accent charmed her millions of followers. 13 million and counting, to be exact. However, the influencer has been facing backlash from her followers and other creators for being dishonest, contrary to her entire ethos. 

The backlash started due to a tone-deaf comment from the influencer. She complained about her work day finishing at 5.19 pm and being in meetings every afternoon. ‘I literally just finished work, and it’s 5:19[pm],’ the makeup artist said in a now-deleted video, which recently resurfaced.

‘Try being an influencer for a day. Try it. Because the people who say it’s easy are so far out of their minds. Try it for a day,’ she continued. 

This opened up a can of worms that led to her comments being flooded with offended followers telling her to get a grip. Soon, her loyal followers began noticing how heavily filtered her content was becoming and how dishonest and over-complimentary her reviews were. Her Instagram photos became more heavily photoshopped, and her followers felt betrayed. Again, her rise to fame is mainly attributed to her honesty, so her followers were upset, to put it lightly. 

Photoshopping your skin to look smoother when reviewing a product that goes on the skin creates a disconnect between the product’s power on photoshopped skin and our natural textured skin. This brings us to our next point. 

All is Not as it Seems

The use of Photoshop is arguably the other way influencers fool young audiences and the most harmful component of the culture.

It’s no secret that most of us edit our pictures in one form or another. Whether it’s to fix lighting, make your teeth a little whiter, or edit out a ketchup stain on your face in the cute brunch pic you took, we all do it, and that’s okay.

The issue here is editing to the point of physical impossibility. I think that posting highly altered photos on Instagram is anyone’s prerogative, but you can’t ignore its adverse effects.

Case in point: Tana Mongeau is a popular influencer who boasts over 5 million followers on ‘gram. A few months ago, she was involved in a huge scandal when she, among others, was called out for editing her photos to the point of being unrecognizable. These (not just Tana’s) unrecognizable photos include body proportions that are physically impossible to obtain naturally, facial editing that smooths skin enough to make even people with perfect skin feel ashamed and noses small enough to make Voldermort quake.

If you need more examples of fraud, Since Nov. 1, 2017, r/instagramreality has become the central hub for before and after photos showing the lengths ordinary people, celebrities, and influencers will go to obtain a certain beauty standard.

We are now entering an insane plane of existence where Tana and other influencers are very open about the fact that they heavily enhance their photos, so we’ll tip a tiny, ant-sized cap to her for that transparency.

It’s All Fun and Games Until… It’s Not

Most other influencers aren’t as honest, which is a problem because then there are 12-year-old girls that stare at these pictures for hours, comparing them to their own bodies. When in reality, the bodies they’re seeing don’t even belong to that influencer. A generation of young girls is now breaking their backs to attain the unattainable.

Instagram is the worst social media network for mental health and well-being, according to a recent survey of almost 1,500 teens and young adults. One survey respondent wrote, “Instagram easily makes girls and women feel as if their bodies aren’t good enough as people add filters and edit their pictures to look ‘perfect’.”

It’s also no secret that the desire to look perfect causes disordered eating in men and women, and eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. There’s also an unfortunate corner of Instagram that encourages eating disorders to reach “goal weight”.

It’s important to note that the culture of maintaining a thin physique isn’t only specific to influencer culture; it’s more or less a bug that exists within the app as a whole. But, it’s still a prominent issue about how influencers with large reaches edit their bodies.

Were You Ever Really There?

Some influencers take inauthenticity to an entirely new level regarding travel.

Influencer Johanna Olssonhad to go as far as to make public statements after critics among her digital following of over 510,000 pointed out the fact that images of her glamorous October trip to Paris had been altered with Photoshop. She photoshopped the Eiffel Tower behind her in a way that was painfully obvious to her followers. The kicker is that apparently, she was in Paris on a sponsored influencer trip — and still posted fake Paris photos.

We’re striving for the unreachable, insatiable hunger for attention and validation. Whether that be extravagant traveling diaries, the best clothes, or the best bodies, many of these things aren’t as attainable to us normies because, well, it doesn’t exist in their reality either.

The Platforms are Cracking Down

Instagram is trying to combat inauthenticity by implementing the removal of likes. While the likes are visible to the user that posts the content, the viewers of said content cannot. This makes it harder for brands to gauge just how valuable the influencer is based on a number usually enhanced in some way. Instead, they have to consider likeability, the influencer’s actual marketing skills, and their algorithmic reach. Small victories.

Instagram removing likes could also mean that people who thrive on like count will have difficulty being booked. How will they beat this? People listen to people with lots of likes — it’s psychology (or, say ‘it’s human nature). But it’s happening.

Instagram has also tried to ban any miracle diet posts effectively.

Influencers also do wonders for brands that are doing good things, for example, the accessory brand Pura Vida. In fact, In 2017, 92% of marketers who used influencer marketing found it compelling.

Influencer culture is a ubiquitous part of everyday life. We are constantly being influenced, whether by a Facebook ad, a celebrity wearing a particular brand, or organic Instagram influencing; we’re all exposed to it. Influencing isn’t inherently wrong. In fact, a lot of influencers are savvy marketers and fantastic content creators and can sometimes truly make a positive impact on their brand or the life of a fan.

It becomes dangerous when it’s inauthentic, and the inauthenticity of influencer culture has been on a steady rise lately. We can only hope that young people get the proper guidance regarding how they cope with these “perfect images.”

At the end of the day, there is inherent responsibility when you are influencing young people. Even with 5,000 followers, you are still reaching impressionable audiences and need to consciously decide what they should see.

We can also only hope that social platforms do their job to ensure dishonest content isn’t rewarded. As influencing continues, it is also imperative that more guidance becomes available to young people viewing this content. Instagram is not evil. Social media is not evil. Influencers are not evil. The personal effects vary from person to person, making the apps sinister, and those feelings are entirely valid.

So, if you’re reading this and feel that social media is affecting you in any of the ways mentioned here, perhaps it’s best to start limiting your intake. Take a walk, talk to someone you trust about how you’re feeling, unfollow those accounts that make you feel icky, or turn your phone off. Remember that you are in control of what you view, and you have the power to cut out images that harm your well-being.

Be kind to yourself.

More on Influencer Culture:

The Rise of Health Influencers

Gen Z’s Valuable Influence on the Food Industry

The Nostalgia Craze: 90s and Y2K Fashion for a New Generation