Essena O’Neill was 18, had over half a million Instagram followers, and spent 50 hours a week posting on social media. Then, she pulled at the thread that would begin unravelling the entire influencer industry.
On 27 October 2015, the young Australian model deleted over 2,000 Instagram photos of her seemingly perfect life: immaculate selfies, holiday pictures and party snapshots all disappeared. O’Neill kept just 96 posts, and recaptioned each to reflect what she said was the truth about her life behind the scenes.
“If you find yourself looking at ‘Instagram girls’ and wishing your life was there’s [sic]… Realise you only see what they want,” she wrote below a picture of herself smiling in a sun hat. Her revelation that she earned “$2,000 AUD a post EASY” was considered remarkable – and it surprised many that if influencers tag a company in their pictures, “99% of the time it’s paid”.
Deleting her photos and renaming her Instagram account “Social Media Is Not Real Life” earned O’Neill headlines in the BBC, Guardian, Daily Mail and New York Times, among others. She confessed to “forced smiles”, “tiny clothes”, and “being paid to look pretty”. In other captions, she spoke of dieting, acne, loneliness and insecurity. Though she didn’t know it at the time, Essena O’Neill was paving the way for today’s frenzied demand for influencer authenticity.
September 2019 was an explosive month for the internet famous. First, on 10 September, New York-based influencer Caroline Calloway (800,000 Instagram followers) was exposed in the American magazine The Cut by a former friend, who revealed that she once bought followers and had outside help writing her Instagram captions. Six days later, writer and actress Tavi Gevinson (515,000 Instagram followers, 371,000 on Twitter) published a tell-all essay about life “as a personal brand making money on Instagram”, confessing to not using #ad to disclose that she was paid to live in a luxury apartment. Finally, on 17 September, Buzzfeed ran an article revealing that journalist and activist Lauren Duca (420,000 Twitter followers) had left students disappointed with a New York University class she had taught off the back of her internet fame.
Each of these articles went viral in their own right: the same mechanics that made these women internet famous also granted them infamy. Each article was extensively discussed on Twitter, gossip forums such as Reddit’s Blog Snark, and countless podcasts. In particular, the revelations about Caroline Calloway reverberated across the internet. Her name became the third most popular Twitter trending topic on the day The Cut article was first released. Roxane Gay tweeted about her. The New York Times wrote an explainer about her life. Rumours about a potential Hollywood movie deal ran rampant. Calloway captured a diverse set of imaginations: follow up interviews were published in both The Times and Buzzfeed.
All three of these viral stories unarguably contained disclosures that were in the public interest – deliberate deception, fraudulent behaviour and disappointed students are all fair game. Yet, in each piece, public-interest disclosures were entwined with intensely personal revelations. In the first essay, it was revealed that Calloway once wore (and slept in) a lace gown for nearly three days because she was addicted to prescription pills; Duca “ate pussy for the first time” before Pride month 2017; Gevinson confessed that in moments of “self-loathing” and anxiety she habitually picks at her skin. Four years ago, when O’Neill used the same Instagram stunt to reveal that she was paid for product placements and that she sometimes felt “incredibly alone” at parties, she irrevocably blended the public and the personal as a measure of influencer authenticity. It isn’t enough to disclose sponsorships: to be seen as “real”, influencers must also divulge their most intimate secrets.
Calloway’s, Duca’s and Gevinson’s stories are not particularly unusual, and they come at a time when there has been a distinct rise in the number of reports about influencer inauthenticity. In August and September 2019 alone, The Telegraph reported that Argentinian influencer Tupi Saravia (315,000 Instagram followers) had been editing clouds into the background of her pictures; Fox News criticised Brazilian influencer Tatiele Polyana (510,000 Instagram followers) for posting a bikini picture captioned with prayers for the victims of Hurricane Dorian; the BBC reported that Chinese influencer Lisa Li (1.1 million Sina Weibo followers) had a “double life” because her apartment was, in fact, “filthy”; Yahoo wrote that New York fashion influencer Marissa Grossman (176,000 Instagram followers) had been “slammed” for linking to a swimsuit brand in a post mourning dead relatives; and The Metro mocked Polish food blogger Ullenka Kash (129,000 Instagram followers) for comparing shredded lettuce to spaghetti.
A spokesperson for the Advertising Standards Authority, the body that first demanded influencers use #ad for paid posts in 2014, says that complaints about influencers have increased from 118 in 2017 to 1,307 in 2019 (so far). While this demonstrates an increased understanding that influencers must be transparent when posting paid-for ads, the ASA have only formally upheld three complaints against influencers for failing to disclose ads this year. The elevenfold increase in complaints proves there is now an atmosphere of distrust.
How is it that women whose careers rely on being liked (and Liked) by so many have suddenly found themselves so detested? Why do we continue to demand influencers divulge personal and private facts alongside disclosures about their public, profitable work? Why is the influencer backlash so pervasive at this moment in time, and what does it say about us, them and society?
Brooke Erin Duffy, an assistant professor of communications at Cornell University, believes influencers are now forced to navigate “Instagram’s authenticity bind”. In 2010, author Dr Jefferson Pooley first introduced the concept of an “authenticity bind” in an essay about selfhood and consumerism, arguing that “promotion and authenticity are deeply interwoven”, and a rejection of “calculated authenticity” has led to a push for “real authenticity” that is nonetheless equally promotional.
“Instagram influencers have to very carefully stay within the boundaries of what’s deemed acceptable about authenticity,” explains Duffy. “They’re expected to be real, and show moments of candour and relatability, but at the same time they can’t be too real – if they delve into topics like politics or religion or other forms of self-expression, they also generate critical blowback.” Duffy says that influencers constantly navigate the boundary between being “too real” and “not real enough”, and stepping over either line can generate criticism and a loss of income.
But there’s another problem: the definition of influencer authenticity is constantly evolving. Duffy says that when she first began studying online personalities in 2010, bloggers and Instagrammers were naturally seen as authentic and relatable because they existed outside of mainstream magazines. The academic argues that Australian teenager O’Neill first redefined authenticity “against the highly curated aesthetic of social media” in 2015. Yet, while O’Neill introduced the concept of honest captions, many pictures remained highly filtered and curated (confessional posts about anxiety, infertility and anorexia still sat underneath sunset shots, engagement photos and beautiful selfies). In Gevinson’s piece, the influencer said Instagram employees told her that users now prefer the photos themselves to be behind-the-scenes candids. “People want to see you letting your hair down,” an employee allegedly told her.
Nowhere is the difficulty of navigating the authenticity bind better illustrated than by the case of Tiffany Mitchell. On 31 July, the Nashville blogger (216,000 Instagram followers) posted a series of photos of a motorcycle accident she had been in three days earlier. On 19 August, BuzzFeed reported that commenters were questioning the legitimacy of the photos, and asked Mitchell if the photos were a staged advertising campaign for Smartwater (a brand of bottled water that appeared prominently in the shots). Although Smartwater told BuzzFeed that they had never partnered with Mitchell, the article caused many to flood the influencer with hate comments.
“It was horrifying,” Mitchell says now. “I was in my house for a week depressed because of the things that people were saying to me. They were telling me to kill myself. They were telling me that they would kill me if they had the chance. They were telling me that I was the most despicable human being, that I’m an insult to humanity.” Some commenters were angry because they thought Mitchell faked the accident, while others were simply enraged that she shared her accident “for personal gain”.
Mitchell explains that the photos from the accident look so professional because a photographer friend had been shooting photos of her motorcycle ride before her crash, and that the bottle of water belonged to strangers who pulled over to help. She used no hashtags in the post, and assumed it would only be seen by her followers who knew her well, and not strangers. She says her Instagram presence has always been centred around honesty, and “the goal is to be more vulnerable all the time”.
“I know that the whole world of social media can be extremely deceptive,” she says, “But if anybody took a minute – just took a minute – to browse through my feed, you would be able to see that any time there’s a sponsorship, it’s clearly disclosed. And most of what I write about is very personal, real-life personal stuff.”
It goes without saying that a distrust of influencers has arisen because many have engaged in deceptive behaviour (from ghostwriters to undisclosed sponsorships to staged proposals). Again, Calloway, Gevinson and Duca all engaged in acts that undoubtedly deserved criticism. But Mitchell’s case shows that the distrust is now so extreme that many influencers can’t really win. Because they post #ads and #candids in the same place, attempts to be personal are automatically perceived as attempts to make a profit. In 2016, British beauty vlogger Zoella told The Sun she had been accused of “pretend[ing] to suffer from anxiety to boost my subscriber figures”, despite the fact she first started posting about her mental health in 2011. On top of this, the public detests sob stories from people they perceive to be rich and privileged (when Zoella posted a video of herself crying entitled ‘Sometimes It All Gets A Bit Too Much’ in 2014, gossip forums lambasted her as out of touch). With or without personal posts, influencers are seen as inauthentic.
But it’s not just gossip forums that feed the influencer backlash. New York Times digital culture writer Taylor Lorenz argues that the media are hugely responsible for our current attitudes towards Instagrammers. Lorenz says that, while many influencers do act unscrupulously and thus earn their critical coverage, the media now disproportionately focuses on tearing down young women with any form of online presence.
“It’s really, really easy to get people to hate on influencers,” Lorenz says. She adds that her critical articles about influencers “always outperform” her more thoughtful takes. “It’s hard because media organisations get addicted to clicks… There’s a stereotype about influencers that they’re just self-obsessed people who take selfies all day and commit fraud to get money, and stories that play into that do insanely well. I mean, insanely well.”
This is undoubtedly a new iteration of age-old tabloid gossip – British titles often accompany their critical articles about influencers with well-placed bikini shots of the woman being scrutinised. The media has always traded in tearing down celebrities, but the definition of “celebrity” is now so broad as to provide ample opportunities for content. Lorenz notes the media now say “every young woman with 20,000 followers is an influencer”, regardless of the truth.
In July, Australian Instagrammer Mikaela Testa (196,000 Instagram followers) went viral after she posted a Facebook rant criticising Instagram’s decision to remove the like count from posts. “Regardless of what you may think, Instagram is a REAL job and those in the industry have worked hard to get where they’re at,” she wrote about her fears the change would affect her income. When she received abusive messages, she filmed herself crying – many media outlets falsely reported that it was the Instagram change, not the bullying, that made her cry.
But here’s the twist: despite being labelled an “influencer” in headlines across the Australian press, Mikaela Testa isn’t really an Instagram influencer at all. The 19-year-old actually uses the platform to advertise a website where she sells pornographic images. “Any pretty young woman who has an Instagram account is suddenly deemed an influencer, and the media direct vile hatred on her and make her a scapegoat,” says Lorenz.
Mitchell is unhappy with her experience with the media. The BuzzFeed article about her accident was written after commenters called the photos staged – she believes negative comments aren’t enough justification for writing a piece containing serious accusations. She also wishes readers were more discerning. “Smart people need to ask more questions,” she says. “Yeah, it is hard to know what to trust, but there’s a way to find the truth if you want it. If you want to be angry, you will believe whatever supports your anger.”
Both Lorenz and the academic Duffy believe there is a gendered element to influencer hate. “It drives me crazy because men are running rampant scams all over Instagram and nobody writes about it,” says Lorenz, explaining that some male influencers sell scam $10,000 workshops about how to hack your Instagram and gain followers. Duffy says we have a long history of devaluing women’s work. “There is a tendency to dismiss that which is feminine as frivolous or vain or unimportant,” she argues. “Influencing is dismissed as people getting paid for something when they’re not doing any work.”
Individual influencers often become scapegoats for wider marketing industry practices (after all, it was Kendall Jenner, not Pepsi, who received hate comments after 2017’s ill-fated commercial). While no one complains if a travel company touches up its brochures to make holiday destinations seem as appealing as possible, in December 2018, Swedish influencer Johanna Olsson (532,000 Instagram followers) was mocked in the press for Photoshopping pictures of herself in Paris. While Olsson did visit the city, she superimposed herself onto backdrops so both the image of herself and of the destination were the best ones possible.
“I think people misunderstand why I did it,” Olsson says now, via email. She claims that the press thought she was “faking a lifestyle”, but she simply wanted to show “a nice outfit with a gorgeous Parisian backdrop” and “make my photo prettier for my followers’ satisfaction”.
“Sometimes you are tired and you make mistakes,” Olsson says. “Making mistakes is human and I think staged/faked backdrops are nothing new and people should be aware this is often the case on social media, TV, and magazines.” Olsson says she understands that people don’t want to be “bombarded with fakeness” on social media, but adds that her mistake is not akin to taking a dodgy brand deal or running a scam. Nonetheless, her story appeared in multiple newspapers, on the Snapchat homepage and on Swedish TV.
The solution is arguably simple: Instagrammers should be honest about edited photographs in order to not mislead viewers (#Superimposed?). It is clear that the legal and ethical boundaries of influencing are being worked out every day. But who could blame Olsson for assuming – four years after O’Neill first made her revelations – that her followers knew her posts involved some fakery? After the backlash, Olsson says she hopes “the world is more aware of the fact that social media is not real life”.
It is confusing that Mitchell wants her followers to know that her posts are real, and Olsson wants hers to know they are staged. Each influencer has found themselves at the opposite ends of authenticity bind: one too real, the other not real enough. Yet both suffered an intense backlash arguably disproportionate to their transgressions. Olsson says the media wanted to portray her as a “stupid little girl”, and Duffy argues “discourse around these cases would be very different if we were talking about male personalities”. The academic says that the stakes for being perceived as inauthentic or duplicitous are much higher for women.
In a recent paper in the International Journal of Communication, Duffy and her colleague Emily Hund reported that social media visibility leaves women influencers vulnerable. After interviewing Instagrammers, Duffy says she was “struck by the emotional labour they have to do to anticipate backlash”, and that many must “deal with the emotional burden of having to do their job while knowing that anything they do opens them up to ridicule”. But does all of this widespread backlash actually affect influencer’s incomes, and will influencer marketing disappear as a result?
“A lot of these backlashes feel vicious and cutting, and they are, but ultimately they do not matter and oftentimes they actually help,” says Brian Reitz, a manager at InfluencerDB, an influencer marketing company founded in 2016. Reitz argues that most backlashes lead to increased followers for an influencer, and compares our attitude towards influencers to our attitude towards politicians. “My general understanding is that people approve of their own political representatives but hate all of the other ones. Similarly, many people roll their eyes at the concept of influencers but definitely follow people who they look to for thought leadership and advice related to fashion, travel, fitness, parenting, etc.”
Tiffany Mitchell doesn’t plan to stop posting any time soon. “I’m more determined than ever to stay telling the truth and being vulnerable about things,” she says of her Instagram presence. “It’s sad to me that people are just so drowned in way too much information and clickbait journalism and are so willing to believe the absolute worst.
“I think vulnerability is the only way to shift that. I’m weirded out by the amount of hatred that I’ve realised exists, but it’s not going to stop me.”
Photographs essena.oneiil/Instagram, tipisaravia/Instagram, tifforelie/Instagram, johannaeolsson/Instagram & Getty Images