What Is The Role Of Influencers In The Age Of Coronavirus?

Photographed by Refinery29 UK
Wearing no makeup, Gal Gadot looked softly but directly into the camera on her phone and said "Hey guys" as though she were talking to her closest friends. "Day six of quarantine," she remarked, "I’ve got to say, these past few days have got me feeling a bit philosophical," before entering into a rendition of John Lennon’s "Imagine", with the help of some celebrity friends. 
The post was captioned: "We are in this together, we will get through it together. Let’s imagine together." Well-intentioned as it undeniably was, in her attempt to invoke unity, Gadot – a celebrity – only emphasised the gulf between her reality and that of her followers – normal people. There was, as you would expect, an inevitable backlash
We can’t sing our way out of this pandemic, not everyone has the bandwidth to be philosophical right now and the dividing lines of wealth have never been more apparent. For many people, staying at home is not a pleasant experience and something as simple as getting hold of enough food to eat has become the daily domestic equivalent of scaling Everest. 

We can't sing our way out of this pandemic, not everyone has the bandwidth to be philosophical right now and the dividing lines of wealth have never been more apparent.

The last decade has seen lifestyle influencers evolve into a class all of their own. Where once we would have read about the children of rockstars in glossy magazines, we now pore over the aspirational Instagrams of millennial homeowners wearing perfectly put-together linen outfits, accented with a scalloped edge lampshade. 
The work of influencers is to build aesthetically pleasing, curated lives for us to buy into. Their incomes are derived from product placement and brand collaborations, their savings propelled by gifted perks which, neatly, fuel their feed. They trade, as most advertising does, in aspiration but clout is their currency and like many commodities it is fragile. One of the unwritten rules of influencing is that, unlike conventional celebrity advertising, it must be authentic – relatable – at all times. 
That’s why influencers, in particular, find themselves in a precarious position right now. Anyone with a platform who relies on the goodwill of their followers in order to make a living knows that they are only one slightly off-key post or brand partnership away from damaging their credibility. That is particularly true right now, as Gadot’s post demonstrated. Pandemic posting is impossible to get right but influencers can’t afford to get it wrong. 
There are also obvious pitfalls to living your life on social media – everyone will know that you’ve broken lockdown and run away to a countryside retreat or somehow managed to get a test for the virus when even health workers can’t manage it, for instance. But right now it wouldn’t take such a catastrophic faux pas to raze a career carefully constructed on followers and likes to the ground. 
This global pandemic has voided the unspoken agreement between the majority of people, elite individuals and corporations and the celebrities and influencers who – by going to lavish sponsored parties, doing ad campaigns and the odd bit of sponcon – serve as an interface between two worlds. If anything, because COVID-19 is not only a public health crisis but a crisis of capitalism, it has exposed the world of influencing for its inauthenticity. However, if twilight posts from impossibly well dressed women tagging brands with glib captions like "I hope you’re all OK" are anything to go by, some are more aware of this than others. 
But if an influencer isn’t posting, they aren’t connecting with their followers, they aren’t working or remaining relevant. COVID-19 is the current zeitgeist, and it’s incredibly difficult to strike the right tone. 

Front of mind at the moment is how I can be of service to the people who follow me.

Clare Seal, My Frugal YEAR
Those who are thriving are a relatively new breed of influencer – they talk about debt, saving money and not being able to buy the things they want. They’re able to genuinely connect with people during these turbulent times because, unlike so many of their counterparts, they didn’t promote privilege masked as meritocracy in the first place. 
Clare Seal is the author of Real Life Money and the woman behind the fast-growing account @MyFrugalYear where she has documented her (at times painful) journey out of £27,000 worth of debt. 
"Front of mind at the moment is how I can be of service to the people who follow me," she tells me. "This is something that I always have to consider carefully anyway because of the subject of the account. I will only ever do an ad if I feel it’s relevant and helpful, and for now, I only do ads for free services." 
Recent such ads have included posts for brands like Hoppy (a utilities switching service to help you find a better deal), Money Dashboard (which collates your income and outgoings in one place to help you track your finances), Credit Karma (which keeps track of your credit score) and Plum (a savings app). 
Whenever she does one of these jobs, Clare donates 10% of her fee to charity, to either the Young Women’s Trust or The Trussell Trust because, she acknowledges, "social media ads are undeniably lucrative". 
Clare’s own debt is now down to £19,000. "When I can afford it," she says, "the amount I donate will be a higher percentage of my earnings." Clare is acutely aware of how jarring some aspects of more conventional 'here’s a top that looks great on me, you should buy it' influencing are in the current climate. 
"What I have a real issue with right now is other influencers advertising buy now, pay later schemes," she adds. "Many of their followers simply will not be able to afford to 'pay later' due to this crisis, and it’s real debt, albeit in a pretty, millennial pink package."

Previously, influencers have often been in a bubble with their work and [coronavirus] has made everyone pivot towards a lot more 'useful' content with relevant takeaways. 

alex stedman, the frugality
Similarly, Alex Stedman, who is behind @TheFrugality and the author of A Realist’s Approach To Everyday Spending, is mindful of how every single word comes across right now to her 254k followers. 
"I have an ad going live on Friday," she tells me, "but I have thought hard about how to make it tasteful."
"I think this crisis has heightened everyone’s awareness of the outside world, to be honest. Previously, influencers have often been in a bubble with their work (myself included) and it has made everyone pivot towards a lot more 'useful' content with relevant takeaways." 
She says she has noticed less consumer consumption on her feed "and people are asking how we are".  
"It has been a welcome break from commercialism for me," she reflects. 
This crisis poses an existential question for many influencers: what, if anything, is their role now? Can you encourage people to spend money when they’ve just lost their job? How do you justify a throwback to an all-expenses-paid trip to a beautiful beach in the Maldives on Earth Day when many people have no idea when they’ll get on a plane again or even if they'll be able to afford it? 
Before the pandemic, a backlash against certain lifestyle influencers was already underway; like our fragile economic growth or creaking welfare state, COVID-19 has merely escalated a breakdown of the social contract which was already in motion. 
Perhaps that’s why some established British influencers are staying noticeably quiet. Then again, it could be because press trips to chic hotels and lavish dinners are on hold because, unlike so much of modern culture, lockdown and financial worries are things that the majority of people can actually participate in (albeit it not through choice). 
"Imagine no possessions," Lennon sang. For too many people right now, that’s easier than you might think. 

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