Has COVID Canceled the Influencer?

Scrolling through Instagram, you’d probably think the coronavirus pandemic was over. Excessively edited pictures of bikini-clad influencers in Dubai litter our Explore pages. Reality TV stars record stories of their mask-less socialization. And talk of parties is an online norm. But with positive cases escalating daily in both the UK and the U.S., COVID-19 is in fact still an international health crisis. As influencers seem to have snubbed a global pandemic, they’ve become the epicentre of online outrage.


Only two years ago, this group of over-polished D-Listers had experienced their biggest growth yet, with current social media leader TikTok first erupting.The video-sharing app offered internet celebrities yet another platform to flex on their audiences. But every boom must fall. Fast forward to the UK’s third nationwide lockdown, and you’ll discover influencers have become wholly trivial.


The ongoing pandemic could’ve been a tactful opportunity for them to create content their audiences actually relate to, rather than the standard extravagant holiday snap. Research has hinted this move was both welcomed and needed. Engagement levels on Instagram had dropped just before coronavirus had spread, with average levels standing at just 3.6% according to firm Mobile Marketer. Recent scandals such as the infamous Fyre Festival disaster had revealed influencers will promote anything, regardless of whether they personally endorsed the product outside of the walls of social media.


As the pandemic hit, Mobile Marketer’s findings had overturned. National lockdowns across the globe granted the public more leisure time. Aptly, those with smartphones were spending more time than ever on social media apps. Rising screen times had forged the perfect opportunity for influencers to produce authentic and relatable content to regain the trust of their followings.


At first, that’s precisely what they did. Make-up free and sofa-bound influencers dominated our Instagram feeds early into the UK’s first national lockdown. They’d traded their exorbitant lifestyles for binge-watching Tiger King, and Nobu restaurants for UberEats. For once, the lives of the internet famous seemed somewhat comparable to the lifestyles of the rest of us. But as rapidly as the pandemic swept the world did influencer’s attitudes to self-isolating shift. For them, the pandemic has been over for months.


While the rest of us spent Christmas away from our families, Instagram models and almost every former Love Island contestant jetted off to Dubai. The situation provided proof that the rich can afford to escape affected areas in global crises for the comfort of an affluent area. Even now, as the UK has entered another national lockdown, pictures of Dubai trips have remained a constant on Instagram’s Explore page.


Influencers have been rightfully called out for travelling abroad and risking the lives of others. On the few occasions that they have addressed the justified criticism, they’ve claimed their trip was for work, meaning it’s within their legal rights. Currently, UK law prohibits travel abroad unless it’s for a “legally permitted reason”. The list of lawfully accepted reasons includes work, so technically these influencers are correct - they are acting within the law. But this conversation has opened up an even wider debate: does legality equal morality?


For the UK, the answer is no. The Tory government has failed to protect its citizens time and time again. Initiatives such as Eat Out To Help Out, which gave customers 50% off their food bill in most restaurants in September, showed us the economy is prioritised far before human lives. Any COVID laws created by this government haven’t been based on ethics. And so weaponizing legality to justify the selfish decision to travel abroad doesn’t rid influencers of moral culpability.


Even if these trips have genuinely been for work purposes, it’s difficult to understand how ex-Love Islander Maura Higgins couldn’t have promoted a dress from fast-fashion brand Revolve from her home in England, for example.


Other redundant excuses have been characterised best by the Kardashian-clan. When Kim shared photos of her 40th birthday party in October, she explained that her “inner circle” of 30 people travelled to a private island so they could, for a fleeting moment in time, pretend “things were normal”. After receiving fiery backlash, the reality star and multi-millionaire later reiterated she and her intimate circle of 30 other people quarantined for two weeks and had multiple health screenings before travelling. Of course, her disclaimer made nobody feel better.


But seeing as Ms Karashian is a trendsetter, it’s since become routine to hear claims of “I was tested!!”, after influencers are trashed for flying internationally during a health crisis. Meanwhile, many Americans have dealt with test shortages after queuing for hours at Urgent Care. For others, tests are too expensive to access at all. It’s debatable how far testing is an excuse for irresponsible actions when tests for the general public are an issue of contention.


Generally, the rich have handled this pandemic far differently from the rest of us. Whether it’s upper-class people in England moving from heavily infected areas to their holiday homes in low risk areas, or flying a private plane’s worth of people to a private island, the rich have remained seemingly unassailable throughout. The striking difference in this us vs them phenomenon is summed up by one of Kim’s photos. Maskless partygoers are enjoying their island getaway while presumably underpaid service workers are standing in the background hastily waiting on them.


Kim’s actions were distasteful at best and braggy at worst, but ultimately they were the target of Twitter’s ridicule. Users mimicked Kim’s caption, accompanying it with images of everything from the formerly mentioned Fyre Festival to screen-grabs of Midsommar. The meme acted as a vessel for non-celebrities to vent their justified frustrations at how both influencers and A-Listers have overlooked the dangers of a pandemic.


Worryingly, not every influencer has accepted that they’ve acted unsafely. For these odd few, they still affirm that they’re just like the rest of us. Last month, Love Island 2019 winner Amber Gill retweeted a post saying: “Sorry but how on Earth are we in a worse position than we were...checks notes...NINE MONTHS AGO!??!”. The tweet raises a valid point. But a point which contradicts Amber’s online presence. In a recent Instagram post, Amber is seen posing in a bikini by a palm tree on a white-sanded beach in Dubai. It’s tough to see how a lavish holiday is a worse position for Amber to be in than that of nine months ago. Particularly as her Instagram feed shows at this time, she was in another equally opulent holiday destination.


Sadly, this has only highlighted how detached from reality both influencers and ironically reality stars are. Most recently, Love Island series two alumni Zara Holland was fined £4,500 for attempting to board a flight from the Bahamas to the UK with her boyfriend immediately after he’d tested positive for COVID-19. For them, a quasi-celebrity status somehow positioned their behaviour above the law.


Though there’s been mass debate over whether publicly shaming influencers who’ve broken lockdown rules really does any good. Some have claimed legitimate criticism soon intensifies into full-blown harassment. While smear campaigns may not be the most productive approach to encouraging people to act selflessly, internet celebrities must be held accountable for risking the safety of others. It’s non-negotiable. There’s no need for an influencer who’s only influential feat is swaying their following to act irresponsibly at a time of crisis.