From the Attic to the Gram: How influencers play a new role in spreading conspiracy theories

Introduction

If you have the social media app Instagram, you have probably seen this: a feed filled with pictures of a skinny body, wearing the newest trend, a smoothie bowl, a perfect vacation on an island (or a city like Paris) and maybe even a cute dog. The followers count is about 50k. You accidentally landed on the page of an influencer. By creating a virtual life with enviable pictures, it is easy for young people to believe that this is the real life, and that they want it as well. Therefore, influencing is especially useful for marketing tools; if you buy the products I use, you will get the life you see on my feed (Ranga & Sharma, 2014). However, this commercialized tool for selling products such as clothing, food and vitamins, is slowly changing into a playground for conspiracy theories to float around and eventually ground into the minds of the 1 billion Instagram users. 

Conspiracy theories often offer unvalidated information about an important political of societal event. They have been around forever, but in current times usually luring on obscure websites or forums such as 4Chan. Conspiracy theories usually evolve in times of crisis, where politics and societal events are being questioned (Pummerer & Sassenberg, 2020). This is nothing new, and has happened during every major crisis. Ever since Covid-19 made an entrance into our lives, Instagram is overflowing with theories about the origin of this virus. But not only Covid-19 is a new source; the introduction of 5G, the mysterious death of Jeffrey Epstein and president Trump are fertile ground for conspiracies to grow. Regardless of these conspiracy theories are true or not, it is remarkable that it has found his new outlet on large social media apps, and thereby into the mainstream. 

In this essay I am trying to discover why the influencer world has turned into the playground for conspiracy theorists, who would often be anonymous in the past. I am going to research this topic by using an overview of two important topics on the internet in 2020 which has been the source of various conspiracy theories and connecting them to the influencer world.

Conspiracy theories

Covid-19

The new coronavirus is an enormous source of conspiracy theories to grow on social media platforms, such as Instagram. This is new, since conspiracy theories were mostly anonymous in the past. Although the combination of influencers and conspiracy theories seems peculiar, there is a link that could connect the two worlds. According to a column in de Volkskrant, many influencers are involved with fitness, health and wellness. This is an image that could be easily sold through sponsor deals and looks good for their following as well, but is an easy gateway to spreading wrong information about things such as vaccination. Covid-19 made this even worse, with conspiracies luring around about the virus being created by the government to vaccinate us and therefore, control us. 

Many people have claimed that covid-19 was created in a lab as a bioweapon, that it was created by Bill Gates or that it was a hoax to keep us out of the loop of “what is really happening” in the world. An article on Reuters states that mainstream media outlets such as Facebook and Google have worked together to block as much misinformation as possible, because there could be a serious health threat if people would be convinced of those theories. However, that hasn’t stopped influencers from spreading these claims on their social media platforms. In recent events, famous high fashion model Doutzen Kroes (6 million followers)  posted on her instagram that she was having questions about the current Covid-19 approach, such as “do they want us to be healthy? And with “they” I mean the media, the pharmaceutical industry, our governments and all the huge companies that have interests very different to ours”, clearly distrusting the current sources of research and information. Gisele Bündchen (16,1 million followers) agreed with her in the comment section.

Melanie Marden (25,1000 followers), is openly questioning the Covid-19 vaccine (although it hasn’t been developed yet) and is empowering her followers to cure through a healthy lifestyle, which involves nutrients, exercise and mindfulness. However, there hasn’t been any scientific evidence that claims that Covid-19 is curable with nutrition or mindfulness. 

According to research on the measles outbreak in 2019, there were almost three times as many active anti-vaccination communities as pro-vaccination communities on the social media platform Facebook. Also, the anti-vac groups were growing more rapidly in members than the pro-vac groups. This group is really diverse as well; from liberal people who believe in holistic health remedies to conservatives and libertarians who are against government mandated vaccines (Johnson et al., 2020). 

QAnon

Qanon is a fairly new theory that believes that there is a “deep state” which is run by elite leaders, celebrities and business leaders, who are also pedophiles. They are involved with child sex trafficking and are working together with the media to stay undercover. However, president Trump knows about them and is actively trying to put an end to it. This theory has spread on the internet through forums such as 4chan and is growing rapidly in followers. Trump himself is also helping with spreading this theory, by retweeting posts from accounts that promote QAnon. According to Media Matters for America, a nonprofit that researches misinformation in America, he did this 185 times. 

Recently, the company Wayfair was accused of working together with the “deep state”, selling furniture for outrageous prices on their website. According to QAnon believers, they used the furniture as a cover up, and actually sold children through their website. The furniture was listed under girls’ names, and QAnon members were quick to link those names to missing children in the U.S. However, those claims were proved false when it came forward that some of these girls were no longer missing. Indeed, one of the girls claimed on Facebook that it was false and that she was never missing in the first place. 

However, before thorough investigation, the theory was already spread on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. Many influencers posted videos on their channels, questioning the company and inform their followers about the alleged child sex trafficking ring. On TikTok, various hashtags such as #wayfairgate gained 4.5 million views together, even after the claims were debunked. Maddie Thompson (46,000 followers), used her platform to spread the allegations against Wayfair, and is now openly a believer of QAnon. One of her recent posts is captioned “Where we go one, we go all”, a motto that is being claimed by QAnon believers. 

Analysis

Throughout history it has always been important for people to have a grip, an idol or anything to hold onto. Firstly, this was the role of religion, but in western society, religion is not as big anymore as it used to be and is slowly decreasing (Abrams, Yaple, Wiener, 2011). After that, it were mostly celebrities who played a big role in being an idol, especially in the age group that now idolize influencers. The difference between a celebrity and an influencer is that the second brings something new to the table, such as conversations with the audience, relatability and a sneak peek into their daily lives; things that the audience wants these days. Therefore, sharing conspiracy theories through Instagram is a effective way to communicate and share your thoughts and opinions with them. 

However, if we look into Lacan’s theory about the jealous husband, which is very similar to conspiracy theorists, spreading such misinformation comes with great risk. Lacan said that if a husband is pathologically jealous from his wife suspecting to sleep with someone else, it is still a pathological case, though she might be actually cheating on him. Regardless of the evidence, the man is probably looking at every suspect of her life to find something that he can relate to her being unfaithful. It is the fanaticism that is interesting for psychoanalysis: why does he invest everything in this one question, and what are the fears he is avoiding by obsessing over every detail in her behaviour? 

If we follow this theory, it means that conspiracy theorists are pathological cases, regardless if they are right or not. Instead of changing political or societal structures, the conspiracy theorist puts the blame on “them”, meaning there is no actually evolution in society. The enjoyment of chasing “something big” could actually be dangerous. Research has shown that conspiracy theorists suffer from different symptoms such as low self-esteem, anxiety, extreme control issues and a great alienation from society. This is known as Conspiracy Theory Disorder (Goreis & Voracek, 2019). Furthermore, it is alarming for public health as well, for example denying vaccines or ignoring Covid-19 measurements.

Conclusion

There are multiple explanations for the current shift in influencer culture. Instagram has been around since 2010, and influencers were quick to dive into this new app. Fast forward to 2020, there are so many influencers active on Instagram, that it is getting harder to distinguish yourself from the competition. According to research, many influencers are using a new aesthetic to gain more following, such as the “porn chic” aesthetic, in which the influencer posts pictures of themselves in explicit ways, also used as a tool to make money as well (Drenten, Gurrieri, Tyler, 2018). However, this form of presentation has been done quite a lot, and therefore is not the best tool to distinguish anymore. Since the audience is currently hungry for representation and more than superficialities, conspiracy theories are a great way to differentiate from the competition and show your followers you are more than a pretty face. This is especially relevant in 2020, a year where many people have lost faith in companies and the government due to Covid-19, the administration of Trump and the rise of Black Lives Matter protest. 

However, conspiracy theories come with different issues such as personal- and public health risks, and therefore should not be disseminated randomly. It is understandable that people want to use their platform to share thoughts and go into debate with their audience, especially since influencers could be seen as idols for their following. However, if we follow Lacan, conspiracy theorists are always a pathological case, which means that there is probably little room for debate and therefore, should be handled with extra caution.

Literature

Abrams, Yaple & Wiener (2011). A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation”, the American Physical Society

Drenten, Gurrieri & Tyler (2018). “Sexualized labour in digital culture: Instagram influencers, porn chic and the monetization of attention”, Wiley

Goreis & Voracek  (2019). “A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Psychological Research on Conspiracy Beliefs: Field Characteristics, Measurement Instruments, and Associations With Personality Traits”, Frontiers in Psychology

Johnson, Leahy, Velasquez, Restrepo, Gabriel, El Oud, Zheng, Manrique, Wuchty & Lupu (2020). “The online competition between pro- and anti-vaccination views”, Nature volume 582, pages 230–233

Pummerer & Sassenberg (2020). “Conspiracy theories in times of crisis and their societal effects: Case “corona”, Leibniz-Institut für Wissensmedien, Tübingen, Germany

Ranga & Sharma (2014). “Influencer marketing- A marketing tool in the age of social media”, Abhinav International Monthly Refereed Journal of Research in Management & Technology, Volume 3 Issue 8, Abhinav Publication

Van der Waals (2020). “Mode, reisjes en ‘de waarheid’: de influencers die complottheorieën verspreiden via Instagram”, de Volkskrant