The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the killing of George Floyd has reached nearly every corner of American life, from physical protests to social media.
Influencers and creators who dominate online spaces — from lifestyle bloggers to YouTube personalities — have been participating in the political conversation more than ever, despite politics being absent from many of their online profiles in the past.
From foodies to YouTube pranksters, influencers of all stripes talked to Insider about how they’ve shifted their content toward social justice, and what they expect the future will hold for influencers and politics.
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Hannah Bronfman was never one to shy away from talking about racial justice online. As a Black woman in the wellness space, the entrepreneur and Instagram influencer has fought for more representation in the industry. “Speaking about social justice isn’t something particularly new for me,” Bronfman told Insider. But the worldwide racism and police brutality protest movement sparked by the May 25 killing of George Floyd has changed her perspective.
“It’s shown me that our voices very much matter,” Bronfman, who has 640,000 followers on Instagram (@hannahbronfman), said. “And anyone who has a platform, whether it’s 10K followers or a million-plus, should be using their platform to discuss the current climate.”
As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to spread through protests in major cities like New York and Paris and small towns in middle America, the social media landscape has emerged as a venue for anti-racism activism and education. Many popular creators on apps like Instagram and TikTok, as well as YouTube, are taking their roles as influencers seriously, and shifting their content to address racism in the US.
“Social media is a different place today than it was even just last month,” said Cameron Rogers of @freckledfoodie, a food, wellness, and lifestyle Instagram page and blog. Rogers, who is white, has spoken about social justice on her platform before, but has taken on a new role in the last few weeks, both on her feed, in her stories, and with her podcast. On Wednesday, for example, she posted an image of herself with a caption that unpacked all of her different kinds of privilege, among other pictures of healthy recipes. “I do think obviously I’m speaking with a bit louder of a microphone right now, given everything that’s happening,” she told Insider.
For Kira West (@bykwest), a health and wellness influencer who is Black, the current protest movement has led her to bring her real-life conversations to her followers, and to “make space” as a person of color in the influencer industry. “I need to really make an effort to make space, which means having a lot of the hard conversations,” she told Insider. But still, she said she’s felt a bit nervous shifting her content and speaking out about political and racial issues. “I definitely think it is nerve-wracking because I’m not a political blogger — wellness is my niche,” she said. But, she’s been sharing that “this is my lived experience and this is how this has continued to impact me and continue to be relevant, more than anything else.”
Influencers have faced repercussions in the past for getting political, including losing followers.
For some influencers, speaking out about politics in the past has had consequences. Adande Thorne, better known as the YouTuber Swoozie (AKA sWooZie), is a Trinidadian-American creator who built up a massive following of over 7 million subscribers with animation shorts and skits. One of his most popular videos is “Driving While Black,” an animated skit about a time he was pulled over by a Black female cop. The video touches on what Thorne told Insider has been a theme in his experiences as a Black man — instances of being confronted by law enforcement for just being Black, known as racial profiling.
Issues like racial profiling and police brutality are political in nature, but they also fit into a wider scope of “human rights” and “social justice.” While Thorne got mostly positive reception for his “Driving While Black” video, he has also experienced massive subscriber loss for speaking out about an issue deemed too political for some.
“I did make a video, jokingly, about ‘if Trump got elected’ and I lost over 100,000 subscribers that day,” Thorne told Insider about a since-deleted video he made before the 2016 election. “I thought I made it very clear that is was satire, it was sarcastic, it was for fun.”
Thorne says that as a YouTuber living in Los Angeles — where most of the US influencer industry is located, and where many influencers and creators move to and live after becoming popular online — he was constantly surrounded by an anti-Donald Trump narrative. Thorne made his “If Trump got elected” video soon after the “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump saying “grab them by the p—-” debuted, and he didn’t expect backlash, because he thought Trump was objectively unpopular. “That taught me to kind of dial it back when it came to political stuff.”
Thorne’s experience of losing 100,000 subscribers in a day for criticizing Trump is a clear demonstration of why many influencers avoid talking about politics. But in the case of the Black Lives Matter movement, the call to make anti-racist content took precedence over that fear. While an issue like Trump’s presidency is inherently divisive, issues that reflect human rights are seen are more unifying, even if they contain political and anti-Trump undertones.
It quickly became expected for influencers to be vocal about the Black Lives Matter movement, even if they hadn’t been political in the past.
Most influencers who didn’t speak about the protests were met with criticism from their followers over their inaction. Rogers said she hasn’t been surprised to see which influencers did or didn’t change their content to align with the protest movement. “With the following comes a responsibility,” she said. “But I think there was a target put on influencers’ heads of like, ‘how are they going to handle this?’ And I think for the people who I was disappointed in how they handled it, I already was disappointed in them as influencers.”
Meghan Rienks, a white YouTuber who has been popular in the beauty and lifestyle communities for more than a decade, has always been open with her liberal politics online. But, after Floyd’s murder, she began posting much more frequently about racism in the US, police brutality, white privilege, and other inequalities. So she was disappointed in herself when a Black follower reached out to say that she was “relieved” to learn that Rienks was truly an ally of the Black community. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, how have I not made it so abundantly clear, over the top, all of the time,” she told Insider, calling the message a “turning point.”
“I’ve always tried really hard to practice anti-racism in my everyday life, in my professional life. And I was like, ‘I am not doing nearly enough, loudly online, because I don’t want anyone to have to ever question if I am a safe place, or I am a person who is supporting them through this movement,” she said. Rienks has since reached out to multiple influencers, some of whom are friends of hers, with resources and information on how they can best use their platforms to educate their followers on anti-racism.
Screenshot Instagram/@hannahbronfman, @swoozie, @meghanrienks
For Yousef Saleh Erakat, better known as FouseyTube (or simply Fousey) to his more than 10 million YouTube subscribers, the protests following Floyd’s killing was a clear call to action. Erakat, who is of Palestinian descent and grew popular in part thanks to videos about Middle Eastern culture, told Insider that he was on a social media break when the protests began. But his break became “irrelevant” once he observed the conversation happening online.
“I didn’t want people to confuse my not being on social media with my ignorance toward the situation and what was going on. I didn’t want to give them a chance to say ‘Why aren’t you posting,'” Erakat told Insider. “I think it’s definitely like a ‘put up or shut up’ environment, and I don’t think creators have room to say ‘We’re with the fight but we don’t want to post about it.'”
Erakat also said he doesn’t personally consider himself to be very politically knowledgeable, but he views the Black Lives Matter movement as “human rights and the basic fight against racism,” something he says it’s easy to be on the “right side” of. That type of “social awareness” activism is something Erakat has taken part in online before, he told Insider — his “public experiment” videos that touch on topics like homelessness and sexual assault have garnered tens of millions of views each, without ever venturing too far in any specific political direction.
Influencers are debating between the value in educating followers who push against BLM content and losing ones who don’t align with their values.
While influencers aren’t necessarily losing 100,000 followers like Thorne did for his Trump video, many have experienced mild to moderate follower loss over their anti-racism content. Sometimes, like in the case of a Trader Joe’s fan account that erred to the “All Lives Matter” side in addressing the protests, the follower loss was due to the influencer’s audience disapproving of the way the influencer chose to show allyship.
Others likely hit “unfollow” because they don’t support the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement — and influencers are somewhat torn on whether those followers should stick around in the first place. For Erakat, it’s simply a matter of being on the “right side” of history, and he says he wouldn’t want followers who disagree.
“If you’re losing followers, you’re not losing followers that are on the same wavelength as you anyways,” Erakat told Insider. “And they don’t have the same belief system as you. So I don’t think there’s any harm in posting how you feel and losing followers over it if you don’t align with those followers anyways. It’s not worth it at the end of the day.”
But while Rogers and Thorne don’t necessarily want anyone opposed to the anti-racism movement in their personal communities, they also argue that those are the people who need exposure to that type of content the most.
“When I reflect back on losing followers right now, a part of me is like, ‘I’m happy to have them gone, then.’ If they don’t like what I’m speaking about right now, then I don’t want them to be part of my community,” Rogers said. “The other part of me is upset because I think they are the people that need to hear this the most.”
Thorne compared having followers who disagree with anti-racism — those who may be ignorant of race issues — to sick people needing medicine. If some of his former followers were white supremacists, he said, then he wishes they would stick around for the educational value of his content.
“I know a lot of influencers who would be like ‘Eff ’em, I don’t care if they leave,'” Thorne told Insider. “I try to take the angle of ‘If I can help provide some medicine or even a better perspective,’ I would prefer they stayed. Not even for the numbers or for the clout, but I’d prefer they stayed because I can possibly help shift their perspective. I wouldn’t look at it as ‘Y’all are leaving? Bye.’ I look at it as ‘I can help change peoples’ perspective.'”
As influencers slowly return to their more “normal” content, they are seeking ways to incorporate this activism into their work.
Patia Borja, who started a massive free database of educational anti-racism resources and who runs the meme account @patiasfantasyworld that became a central voice in BLM movement, said influencers need to think twice before they start posting their normal content again — especially when that content is something like showing off your clothing. “I think that to just go back to posting your designer outfit is just the most outrageous thing. And I think at the end of the day, if you’re gonna do that, you can’t complain about the system, because you’re being complicit within it,” Borja told Insider.
“There’s a lot of things to cover, and we don’t necessarily need to do it all in a week,” Bronfman said. “A lot of people of color are saying that it’s not on us to provide all the resources, or a burden on people of color,” she said, adding that she’s “trying to be a good resource while also maintaining my sanity.”
But still, moving forward, she said she’s excited to be able to use her platform in the fight for racial equality. “I was raised by a very strong, empowered Black woman, who raised me to be the same. And I just feel like, never has there been a time to turn my platform into something extremely meaningful,” she said.
For Toni Adeyemi, a Black activist who launched a viral Instagram filter to help users pick where to donate to support the Black Lives Matter movement, the shift from using her Instagram platform to talk about her personal life to talking about activist causes coincided with the Floyd protests.
“Before it would be me at a party, me at the boxing gym, me at wherever, it would just be me and my life. Now I’m dedicated to this,” Adeyemi told Insider. She encourages influencers who are interested in using their platforms to focus on specific changes that can be implemented in both the influencer industry and in other social and political spheres. For Thorne, this is part of his goal as a massive YouTuber. He told Insider that he’ll be supporting specific policy changes in the future that include requiring all law enforcement officers to wear body cameras that are actually turned on, with recordings that are accessible to the public.
“We see people co-opt Black culture, profit off of it, and keep going. We see Black creators having their work stolen and not credited,” Adeyemi said. “They can’t just say [Black Lives Matter] and not be educated […] There are tactical ways that influencers who are actually serious can help. If they’re serious, there are actual things they can do.”
It remains to be seen how vocal influencers will be in the 2020 election.
Since April 1, President Donald Trump’s approval ratings have been sinking, according to FiveThirtyEight, and among normally tight-lipped influencers, disapproval of the Republican president has become the norm — especially amid BLM protests, but it’s unclear if influencers will be willing to vocally support his opponent.
Asked whether she’ll support a candidate other than Trump on her platform for November’s upcoming presidential election, Rogers simply said, “Absolutely.” Rienks has also been open on her platform about her disdain for Trump. But Erakat, on the other hand, was doubtful that most influencers would tell their followers whom they should vote for.
“With this election in particular, I don’t think so,” he told Insider. “I think that I can see creators telling their fans to go out and vote, but in terms of having somebody that they think they should vote to get our current president out, I don’t think that they’re going to have a lot to say about that.
“I think people aren’t as confident in ‘This is who we need in office, this is who I want to run the country.’ I don’t think we have that definitive answer yet,” he said. “I think people are picking between the lesser of two evils.”
Bronfman has been speaking a lot about voter suppression on her Instagram, and posted a video on her feed on Wednesday about the history of voter suppression in the US. She said it’s impossible to address racism in America while ignoring politics. “I actually believe that you really can’t have one conversation without the other at this point,” she said. “If you want to be seen as someone who really believes in this movement, and as someone who’s taking actionable steps to dismantle this systemic racism, you have to speak out against Trump.”
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