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The dark side of the influencer economy

As Kylie Jenner earns £1million for an Instagram post, it’s easy to see why the influencer economy is attractive. But is it all it seems?

One in five children aged 11-16 want to be social media influencers, according to recent research. That’s more than aspire to be teachers or vets.

Gen Z are facing an insecure job market and the cost of living crisis. So, with the likes of Kylie Jenner, Dwayne Johnson and Ariana Grande reportedly earning more than £1million for a single sponsored Instagram post, it’s easy to see why this new profession is attracting their attention. But is being an influencer all it seems?

For his book Get Rich or Lie Trying, Channel 4 journalist Symeon Brown conducted an in-depth investigation into how influencer culture affects the people involved, and the ethical dilemmas the industry throws up. 

“Primarily it is a book about modern work, and the economic lives of our post-millennial generations,” he says. It’s the kind of story you might expect to see from the likes of Jon Ronson, Brown adds, but he brought a different perspective. “I’m a millennial from Tottenham. A working class, black Afro-proletariat. I grew up under the hegemony of hip hop. This is my vantage point. It frames the way I connect the dots between big tech and culture.”

From plastic surgeries going horribly wrong to the shocking story of a formerly homeless man who is paid to be racially abused on alt-right live streams, on this week’s BetterPod, Brown discusses the undercurrent of fraud, exploitation, bribery and dishonesty behind the glamour.

This is an abridged version of the conversation on this week’s BetterPod. Listen to the full conversation at your regular podcast provider or below.

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The Big Issue: What does the word influencer mean to you?

Symeon Brown: Most people attach the term influencer to a kind of minor celebrity with a huge following online. Archetypes are usually somebody who’s been on Love Island or Kim Kardashian. I am interested in the idea of an influencer as a digital worker – somebody who’s trying to generate income via social media. I think putting it in a broader understanding of labour tells us a bit more about where this world is going.

Symeon Brown, author of Get Rich or Lie Trying: Ambition and Deceit in the New Influencer Economy
Get Rich or Lie Trying author Symeon Brown. Photo: PR supplied

Why is this topic worthy of an in-depth investigation?

I was really interested in the young people I was coming across who were presenting themselves as super affluent and wealthy online. They had built huge social media followings and presented themselves as traders or city high-flyers or hedge fund CEOs, but in reality, they were just marketing affiliates promoting super dubious investment schemes.

That drew me into the various different subcultures in which people felt that they had to misrepresent their lives to make an income online. Fundamentally, in order to escape precarity or to achieve their ambitions. Social media had stepped in to fill the gap between how we effectively find ourselves and how we achieve success because it felt so elusive offline. 

And so for me, it was really about that dichotomy of what the current economic possibilities look like for this generation. Why is it the internet has this promise and how real was that promise? And what does that mean for people who are at the bottom of that social ladder? 

Some of the stories you uncovered are really hard to read. Were there moments during your investigation when you were particularly shocked?

A lot of the stories touch on ethical fault lines. For example, I interviewed a man in California who at one point had been homeless and he’d been doing what he described as dead-end jobs. His life changed when he joined an alt-right leaning, live-streaming community that would pay him to racially abuse him. That’s how you could generate money from that particular live stream and audience.

Do you think if a guy goes on and allows people to pay him to hear racist insults, or if a woman changes her body shape to find an audience online, it has an impact on broader society?

In the case of the surgery chapter, the young women I interviewed were effectively altering their shape because they felt that was the demand of the labour market they were trying to enter. 

One young woman said, you know, I have two children, I’m 20 years old. Going back to school is going to be challenging. The only jobs that are offered to me are super low income. I would like to have a decent income so that I can provide a good life for my children. It seems like the only place that is able to do that for me is the influencer economy. I can build a following online.

Just on a basic level, that looks quite rational. But beneath that are the incentives. These surgeries offer discounts or free surgeries if the women promote them. Therefore, there becomes an inherent incentive to misrepresent.

Their ambitions are being taken advantage of by those companies and their health could be at risk. And they are not necessarily declaring some of the risks to their own followers, even when their surgery has been botched. There are different levels of exploitation and different levels of agency at play.

At the end of your research, did you come away thinking that influencer culture could be fixed?

The thing is that if people had more agency – if they didn’t have to worry about their housing and choosing between heating and eating – then all of my concerns about influencer culture would almost be solved overnight. 

So it’s as much a challenge to our social and economic consensus. I think if people have more agency then they have a fighting chance of not being pulled into the Twitter plantation, or the ’Gram Life. That, for me, is the real thing that needs addressing.

Get Rich Or Lie Trying: Ambition and Deceit in the New Influencer Economy by Symeon Brown is out now (Atlantic Books, £16.99).

Listen to the full conversation with Symeon on BetterPod.

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