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Do social media creators have a responsibility to speak on current events and political issues? Our US Community Management Intern, Zora Hermans, breaks down the content marketing debate.
With last year’s presidential election, the ongoing pandemic, and growing international unrest, the world we live in has become increasingly politicized in the past year. This is especially true of the digital space, where the world’s issues are not only reported and documented in real time, but are also at the forefront of conversation. They unfold on social media users and networks which have the power to unite and polarize the global community. As such, younger generations especially are turning to those they trust – social media content creators and visual content creators. Otherwise referred to as ‘influencers’, this label has taken on a new meaning in the past year and with it a new, politicized type of content has entered the mainstream. With their power to sway public opinion with each piece of content, people now expect quality content creators to speak on complex, often controversial matters. But if social and political issues continue to permeate social media, do content creators have a responsibility to speak about them?
There are two general schools of thought. First, some argue that because creators have been gained huge platforms and a substantial following, they have a responsibility to ensure they engage in the issues potentially affecting their audience. They are not completely obligated to do so, but as someone with a following they have the potential to invoke some considerable and lasting change, and not doing so could be seen as neglectful of the platform they have. On the other hand, some argue that influencers built their following through specific a content strategy based on interests like beauty or dancing, for example, so we shouldn’t ask them to be educated on politics or complex current affairs. Many content creators nowadays are young, and expecting them to speak on these world issues isn’t fair to the creators or the followers who might genuinely not be interested in them.
In the current atmosphere of increasing polarization, there is a heightened expectation on content ideas and creators to show their stance and use their social media presence as if it were a soapbox. If they remain silent on prevalent issues, they risk losing social network followers, or even the dreaded ‘cancellation’. People are quick to judge and often take silence as an indication of opposition or indifference. Take the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred internationally last June: social media accounts and posts were wallpapered with black squares, video content from protests, trending hashtags, and opinions about racial justice. With the sudden barrage of information, young users were left in a tailspin. They looked to their “faves” for clarification and solidarity. Comment sections were filled with questions, not about the content of the post, but rather demands that the creator speak out. If they didn’t, people assumed they didn’t care about the BLM cause, or worse: that they were actively against it. If creators took too long, they were called out, with followers bringing up past digressions as proof of their problematic nature.
Equally, when bloggers, influencers and creators do speak up, often their statements can end up feeling unauthentic or hypocritical. This can happen when the issue is especially buzzworthy or suddenly has a lot of attention in the media, when it had previously been ignored. For example, many creators spoke up about race relations in the BLM protests of last year, despite being silent or controversially vocal on the subject in the past. It can look as though they only chose to comment on the issue when it was “popular” to do so, posting content that comes across as nothing more than clickbait or a stunt to sway the favour of the algorithm. They saw what being “woke” could do for their presence, their metrics and careers, or simply they just felt pressured to speak up. They are then branded as hypocritical, which can land them in even hotter water than if they had remained silent altogether.
This tendency to pressurise creators can be problematic, especially on a platform like TikTok where many of the most popular creators are young teenagers. Is it fair for us to expect to hold 15-year-olds to the same standards we hold politicians or experienced activists? Furthermore, do we actually want uninformed people speaking on complex issues? The digital age has allowed for the spread of misinformation, and giving young creators the responsibility of educating their followers can result in even more “fake news” or false information to be in circulation.
According to our 2020 Whitepaper Into the Mainstream: Influencer Marketing in Society, almost 40% of 16-34 year olds rely on influencers or news updates and opinions, instead of journalists and established news outlets. Although we would like to be encouraging young people to seek out reliable sources for news and research, instead of relying on social media, in reality this is just not the case. As such, we must operate under the assumption that young people are expecting creators to post about these issues.
The expansion of social media marketing has similarly allowed for the proliferation of misinformation and this “fake news” that has become so easily accessible. As users look to creators they are also looking for clarification as to which facts are actually true versus which aren’t. This is a heavy burden to put on their shoulders, and it is becoming prevalent that social media platforms have a significant role to play in filtering out inaccuracies. Take the COVID-19 vaccines: the spread of misinformation and conspiracies being circulated on social media has compelled governments to step in and put pressure on social platforms, to be quicker and more effective in their actions to monitor and take down this harmful content. This highlights that, as much as creators must post responsibly, flattening the rise of ‘fake news’ needs to come from the top-down.
For many, social media content creation has become a full-time job. Social platforms are constantly providing new ways for people to monetize their high quality, original content, even enabling them to charge their subscribers and followers for access to exclusive posts. Many rely heavily on branded partnerships as a source of income, forcing them to consider how their content could impact potential future campaigns. Here at TAKUMI, we get numerous campaign proposals seeking creators with engaging content that reflects a well-rounded, multi-dimensional individual; creators that have passion points as well as an awareness of the world around them. In fact, according to our 2020 Whitepaper, 41% of consumers believe that influencers should use their platforms to engage in activism. Therefore, by creating a versatile and empathetic online persona, creators can engage with their audiences more effectively.
Not only does this benefit the creator, it is also beneficial for the brands they collaborate with. Public expectations are high, with brands wanting to appear “woke” and in touch with the matters that consumers care about. With creators bridging the gap between the two parties, it falls on them to represent their followers’ interests. It falls on them to be engaged in the world, posting content that is authentic to their identity and the values of their followers. Embodying these qualities are the micro-influencers- creators with a following of around 1,000 to 100,000 people, and often regarded as industry experts or subject specialists, since they have built their content around a niche interest, such as beauty or fitness. They tend to have a strong relationship with their followers, and their content is a reflection of both their own interests and values, and those of their followers’. They understand that authenticity is crucial, which also feeds into their philosophy behind brand partnerships. More and more, creators are putting values and social justice at the forefront of their partnership decisions by ensuring the brands they choose to work with are aligned with their own values, like sustainability. In doing so, creators are staying true to themselves and true to the social issues their followers care about; followers which represent the target audiences that brands need to reach.
That being said, this means that brands cannot rely solely on creators to help them appear “woke”. In digital marketing, while raising brand awareness and hitting KPI’s are a key focus, this cannot be achieved without a clear brand identity. What do we stand for? What are our values? How do our products, advertising, and culture reflect what we believe in? These are the questions which brands must be asking themselves. If they don’t address world issues or reflect the values of their target consumers, this deters creators from potential partnerships.
Ultimately, although it is niche content which sets them apart from one another, it’s more important than ever that creators and brands show themselves to be culturally, socially, and politically engaged.
For better or worse, social media has become a microcosm for the politicized and polarized world in which we live, where the potential for invoking positive and negative social change is huge. As we witness (and brace for) the strengthened intersection of these two worlds, the question of ‘where the responsibilities lie’ has become even more complex. We must recognise the role that individuals play in the dissemination of information via social media posts, video content, images and more, along with the impacts of their online behaviour. We must hold brands and business owners and marketers accountable, ensuring they and their content development methods are socially and ethically driven. We must acknowledge the duty of social platforms to monitor dangerous posts, misinformation, and uphold truth.
Nevertheless, content creators share the burden too. They have led the charge in creating, modifying, and evolving trends and general lifestyle patterns, and are now being depended on for shaping public opinion. Nowadays, the best content creators will recognize the power and sway they hold to inspire political and social change, and in the younger generation’s immersion into the new world order. With great power comes great responsibility, but ultimately, we all have a part to play.
TAKUMI US Community Management Intern: Zora Hermans
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