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COVID-19 and the Influencer: The Authenticity Trap

By January 2, 2021No Comments

It appears that the influencer capitalistic beat has hit a wall by way of COVID-19. Kate Demolder examines what this less-than-aesthetic lifepath means for the social media elite, and asks is it possible to #spon it out alive?


The thin veil of influencer authenticity slipped earlier this year when Arielle Charnas – of 1.3m-Instagram-follower fame – found herself the victim of febrile backlash after it seemed that her status helped her secure a coronavirus test at a time when they were in short supply. The 33-year-old mother-of-two, who runs the hugely successful site Something Navy, apprised Instagram Stories that she had shown symptoms and secured a test from friend Dr Jake Deutsch. Accusations of privilege followed, further reinforced when it was discovered that she and her family sought refuge in the upmarket Hamptons, while fellow New Yorkers tarried at the mercy of the virus’ then-epicentre. 

“I realise that there are many individuals, both in New York City, and nationwide, who do not have the ability to receive immediate medical care at the first sign of sickness, and access to care is #1 priority in a time like this,” she wrote in a now-deleted March 18 Instagram post. She further defended the decision in a statement, saying that after she learned she tested positive for COVID-19 on March 19, she, along with her husband, their nanny, both of whom also tested positive, and the couple’s children, followed all of their doctors’ recommendations “to a tee.”

“Once we properly monitored our symptoms and determined that a) we had no fever for at least 72 hours, b) all symptoms had improved and c) at least seven days had passed since our symptoms first appeared, we decided to leave the city, after several consultations with doctors who granted us permission,” she said. New York City is dense, Charnas said, and has “the highest number of cases in the US, and we felt it would be safer for us to resume our lives while continuing to quarantine elsewhere.”

Openly flaunting privilege at a time when thousands fear the worst shifts the glamorous lifestyle of influencer dynamic into a realm the audience is not supposed to see. Influencers – be they good people in real life (which they often are) or not – rely on relatability to survive in a highly saturated market. The greatest tool in their arsenal is their curated accessibility, something that is shattered when a polarity between them and their followers becomes unavoidably visible.

Charnas’ incident, and others like it, reflected a wider outrage around the disparity in peoples’ ability to access seemingly basic level needs (healthcare, refuge) in times of crisis. Madonna declaring COVID-19 was “the great equaliser” from a rose petal bath and Pharrell near incinerating his follower base upon suggesting they donate to frontline workers, despite a net worth of $200 million, also come to mind.


Unlike the rest of the world’s super wealthy, the coronavirus has created a cultural lacuna for those whose living requires them to remain in the public eye. Forced to engage with the public in order to stay relevant, the ‘just like us’ narrative proves tricky when FaceTiming from a private island. What’s interesting is that in many ways, 2020 was primed to be the year that redeemed those who make a living online. Following a grifter-filled 2019 resplendent with scamming and con-artistry, the future was primed for authenticity and quote-unquote ‘realness’. A decrescendo from the Fyre Fest/Caroline Calloway days of yore.

Last year, events like these led to a spate of opinion pieces proclaiming the death knell had tolled on influencer marketing. Experts rightly felt that trust in social media celebrities had been so eroded as to render them worthless. 

In a speech last summer, Unilever’s chief marketing officer Keith Weed called on the influencer ecosystem to “rebuild trust before it’s gone forever”. Dutifully, the industry obeyed. Clean-up operations ensued: platforms deleted fake followers, regulators tightened guidelines around sponsored content, influencers developed a taste for performative transparency and in some cases habits around editing changed, with many opting for a ‘real life vs Instagram’ approach to social media. 

It seemed that 2020 would be the most transparent year yet for digital marketing – but that visibility disclosed a number of surprising truths. 

UK digital agency Attain released a report back in May detailing that the immediate impact of COVID-19 on influencers was somewhere in the region of a 33% loss of potential earnings. Of the five groups surveyed (ranging from 0-100k to 3m+) at least half of each category posted less sponsored content than they normally would.

Acknowledging that micro influencers (creators with a profile boasting between 1,000 to 100,000 followers) were likely to be the ones most feeling the pinch, Attain followed up with a case study on one of the most followed people online, Kendall Jenner. Since lockdown began, she had posted no ads at all in comparison with between six and eight in previous years. This, they calculated, would have lost her somewhere in the region of $2,388,785 (€2,177,115). Other influencers also saw their earnings drop from something to absolutely nothing

Closer to home, rare influencing opportunities were actually created by way of the coronavirus. Back in September, Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond made headlines by sharing his belief that social media influencers should be paid €20,000 to educate young people about COVID-19. Former Minister for Health Simon Harris swiftly backed it, leading to a frank and open discussion by Taoiseach Mícheál Martin about whether this very 2020 idea had legs.

For all the reprobating that followed, it’s hard to dismiss Richmond’s idea as a bad one. For a government frustrated with youth non-compliance, following in the footsteps of our geographical neighbours – who paid influencers to promote the NHS test and trace system – could reap dividends. Their reach is undeniable.

Reasoning vertically, lockdown should have created an exemplary environment for content creators. Much like Netflix, TikTok and any forum that requires you to refresh ad nauseam, the influencer batting average should rise in a time when everyone is screen-adjacent. Some managed to create opportunity from the situation by joining like minded individuals together and creating ‘content houses’. A simple but lucrative concept, Ireland’s GOAT House, located in a plush Dublin suburb, saw ten individuals unite to generate videos, memes and imagery to be shown across a wide variety of channels – thus increasing their chances of being seen by a new audience. “Making content is a proper grind,” the house’s CEO Jack Browne told The Sunday World. “A lot of people don’t see that.”

So at a time when sharpened attention, limitless scope and governmental opportunities are at an influencer’s feet – what stops them from (e-)world domination? 

In short; disproportion. 

Few things ruffle feathers like inequality, especially when the unequal one is you. Yes, a plutocratic anti-democracy regime doesn’t quite sink its teeth in in the same way when the country is on its knees. You cannot serve God and Mammon, so to speak.

Class rage isn’t a new concept – Corbynmania resurrected the concept for Gen Z back in 2016 – and it ties in neatly with Henri Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory (a psychological term which separates the ‘them’ from the ‘us’, essentially). It’s much easier to relegate the ‘them’ to ungrateful when it’s ‘us’ who aren’t doing well and the numbers of ‘them’ are growing. History shows this rarely ends well. ‘Elite overproduction’ is a concept developed by Peter Turchin, which describes the condition of a society which is producing too many potential elite-members relative to its ability to absorb them into the power structure. This, he hypotheses, is a cause for social instability as those left out of power feel aggrieved by their low status.

Francis Bacon detailed a similar take some 400 years ago in his essay on sedition, warning of the threat to the state when “more are bred scholars, than preferment can take off”. When those in influential positions try to maintain a ‘celebrities, they’re just like us’ narrative, while also pocketing handsomely, viewer naiveté plummets, leading us to view them as capitalist oppressors. Trotsky would be proud. 

Influencers thus represent capitalism and COVID-19, with its ‘we can do this together’ mentality, aligns itself more closely with socialism – causing a bit more of a fuss than one would have hoped. While a proletarian revolution isn’t expected, a job which centres itself around VIP treatment in a time of despair is as doomed as bipartisan politics – nobody wins when extremism is built into the programme. Indefinite time at home may speak to the self-employed as a time to grind, but socioeconomics will always bring you down if exceptionalism is necessary. To borrow from 1830’s France, noblesse oblige – ‘privilege entails responsibility’.

We should not underestimate the impact celebrities can have on our preferences and attitudes. Angelina Jolie’s revelation that genetic testing precipitated her decision to have a preventative mastectomy resulted in an immediate increase in demand for both genetic testing and preventative mastectomies. Chrissy Teigen and Meghan Markle both ignited important conversations by way of opening up about previous miscarriages. Even Barack Obama has commented on the trend. In a 2013 interview he suggested that the constant exposure to “the lifestyles of the rich and famous” has caused “a shift in culture.” In the past “kids weren’t monitoring every day what Kim Kardashian was wearing, or where Kanye West was going on vacation, and thinking that somehow that was the mark of success,” he said.

There’s also the belief that we don’t want our celebrities to be the same as us – we invest in the idea of fame. We want them to be perfect because we, in turn, want to ascend to perfection. As the sociologist Karen Sternheimer writes in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream (Routledge, 2011), “Rather than simple superficial distractions, celebrity and fame are unique manifestations of our sense of American social mobility: They provide the illusion that material wealth is possible for anyone. … Celebrities seem to provide proof that the American Dream of going from rags to riches is real and attainable.” Thus, those who have managed to accumulate a large following make social mobility (an act on a steep decline) look like magic. Influencers like Emma Chamberlain may be onto something by way of credibility (sharing unedited photos, vlogging with acne) but at the end of the day, once we’ve accepted them, we want to see them with the beautiful people. 

In terms of an influential 2021, it’s hard to know which content creators stand a chance. According to Forbes, focus is shifting to the collective good, despite influencer fraud continuing to be a top issue. Platforms like TikTok also boast instability, which could lead to viewer apathy. However, while all signs may lead to a decline in influencer-type career paths, the supercharged idea of rags-to-riches celebrity is not going away. Although 69% of brands expect to decrease their advertising spend this year, the amount of time that we are all spending on our devices also means that social media engagement has increased. In a time of crisis, people are also looking online to feel less alone. Whether that remains post COVID-19 is anyone’s guess. Will you be willing to browse YouTube when you finally make it to a dance floor again? Didn’t think so. 

Photo by Mike Von on Unsplash