Late last year, the Daily Mail identified Ralphie Waplington as Britain’s “youngest social media ‘influencer.’ ” Ralphie, who is two, has twenty thousand Instagram followers. For most of his life, he has been an unknowing model of baby clothes and other infant paraphernalia. His parents photograph him according to briefs they receive from commercial partners; members of his extended family must seek approval before posting their own photos of Ralphie, lest an off-message picture harm his brand.
Ralphie is undeniably cute. But his cuteness only compounds the sense of unease we feel whenever we contemplate influencers and their craft. On one level, “influencer” is an anodyne, commercial label, describing someone who monetizes an online following by endorsing products or services—a celebrity spokesperson for the social-media age. And yet “influencer” also sounds slightly sinister; the Influencer could be a Batman villain, alongside the Joker. It’s no accident that the term has entered the lexicon at the same moment that influence of a different sort has become a geopolitical weapon of unprecedented proportions. The social-media influencer has an eerie double in the hacker who covertly shapes political discourse. Both flourish in our increasingly networked world, in which digital influence is sharply double-edged—a salable commodity and a threat to democracy, a commercial dream and a political nightmare.
Connectivity is the basis for the heightened role that influence now plays in our lives. Digital technologies soften the borders between people and create a porousness upon which influence depends. In a fairly undisguised etymology, the word “influence” comes from the Latin for “inflow,” which provides an image of the way that, every second, our thoughts now stream into one another’s pockets. The same image evokes our anxieties about hostile foreign states penetrating our defenses. Influence is a challenge to sovereignty, both political and personal; to admit to being influenced is to give up the attractive idea that, as individuals or societies, we are entirely self-contained.
The elusive quality of influence—the difficulty we encounter when we try to identify its sources or measure its effects—is equally destabilizing. Influence works best when it’s wielded obscurely, in the shadows and behind the scenes, and this has clear social consequences for a society engaged in building a digital-influence economy. Based on the available evidence, it seems that we can’t construct an influence economy without stoking a culture of skepticism and paranoia.The fear of being influenced affects our sense of reality and our ability to trust our own judgments about what is true. Election hackers and commercial influencers have wildly different aims, but both contribute to the unreal, distrustful tenor of our times, in which a language of fakery, deception, and inauthenticity has become fundamental to how we interpret the world.
Influence was worrisome long before it was digital. The word “influence” appears in a quarter of William Shakespeare’s plays, in which the condition of being influenced is rarely happy or dignified. Almost without exception, Shakespeare gives influence a darkly astrological cast. In “Measure for Measure,” Vincentio argues that it’s misguided to fear death, since human life is so inescapably “servile to all the skyey influences” that “hourly afflict” this earth. Influential mortals, meanwhile, often mock those who are susceptible to influence. Parolles, the vulgar, unreliable soldier in “All’s Well that Ends Well,” encourages the young Count Bertram to exploit his position in the court, which is populated, Parolles says, by those who “eat, speak, and move, under the influence of the most receiv’d star.” (Today, as we know, the word “star” still describes someone who possesses extraordinary influence.)
Shakespeare’s portrayal of influence may seem outmoded, but it has an unsettling echo in the fact that, in many ways, online influence isn’t directed by human agents. The algorithms that dictate which videos are recommended by YouTube, or the hidden engines that prioritize certain social-media posts over others, are the digital equivalents of Shakespeare’s remote, “skyey” influences. Their agendas are unknowable and changeable; even social-media influencers are subject to the whims of the algorithms, as if they were serving capricious deities.
In Shakespeare, being influenced is linked to a kind of irrational servility. Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” from 1890, takes an even more alarming view. The novel’s irresponsible influencer, Lord Henry, who convinces Dorian of many “wrong, fascinating, poisonous, delightful theories,” also admits that “all influence is immoral. . . . To influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed.” In Wilde’s novel, to be influenced is to be dominated—to experience an eclipse of personality.
Among other things, “Dorian Gray” invites us to think about how influence, as it grows more pervasive, can create a broader atmosphere of inauthenticity. Lord Henry describes the influenced person as someone who no longer has a genuine identity; such a person’s motivations are unreal and unnatural because they originate with someone else. But the intimate dynamic that unfolds between influencer and influenced means that both parties become, in some sense, unreal. The influenced person may burn with someone else’s passions, but the influencer’s authenticity becomes questionable, too. It’s theoretically possible for a popular YouTube skateboarder to love and advertise a certain brand of skateboard simultaneously—but, in practice, the mere existence of financial motivation can’t help but modify any genuine enthusiasm that may exist. In this sense, influencers influence themselves.
In 2017, the Federal Trade Commission released guidelines calling for social-media influencers to become more transparent about their corporate relationships. “Avoid ambiguous disclosures like #thanks, #collab, #sp, #spon, or #ambassador,” the Commission suggested. “Clarity counts.” Unfortunately, clarity is at cross-purposes with influence, which is powerful precisely because it’s ambiguous. In both the political and commercial spheres, this ambiguity has an unsettling effect. We begin asking ourselves questions such as: Was that story I glimpsed in my news feed from a credible source? Was that product recommendation written by a genuine consumer or a paid spokesperson? Why do I want what I want? Why do I hold the political beliefs that I do? These unknowables, in turn, prompt an even more vexing question: What does it even mean to have an unadulterated and authentic opinion? The knowledge that influence is such a major animator of public life increases our cynicism about others and ourselves.
Lately, the influencer phenomenon has been mutating in surprising ways. In December, The Atlantic reported on people who style their social-media content to make it seem as though they are sponsored by businesses. They stage their photographs to create the illusion of product placement, hoping that fake relationships with brands will help build the status needed to secure real ones. Their posts imitate the influencer’s unique tone of contractual enthusiasm, which injects an air of surprised gratitude into a carefully negotiated product promotion. One example from The Atlantic article is the aspiring life-style influencer Sydney Pugh, who describes taking a picture of the coffee she had just bought, then captioning it with a jaunty declaration of love for Alfred Coffee.
Meanwhile, last year, news reports began to appear about hackers locking influencers out of their social-media accounts and charging them ransoms. The blogger Cassie Gallegos lost control of her Instagram profile in one such attack. Instagram was unable to intervene, so she paid a little more than a hundred dollars to the hackers, who then disappeared, along with her account and its almost sixty thousand followers. Historically, influence has been seen as a mysterious and intangible force, but, for social-media influencers, it is surprisingly concrete. It resides in an archive of pictures, videos, and text, to which valuable followers are digitally tethered. The technologies that have facilitated the boom in influence have also crystallized it, turning it into a digital jewel that can be stolen.
The idea of influence has come to feel more solid for the rest of us, as well. Scrolling through our feeds, we are certain that powerful people and corporations are trying to influence us. In response, we may be tempted to nurture a ferocious independence—a sensibility unswayed by external agendas. The trouble, though, is that resisting the influence of others so wholeheartedly can amount to a kind of totalitarianism of the spirit—a walling-in of the self. In Shakespeare, it’s the unpleasant characters, such as Parolles, who make fun of other people’s impressionability. In “King Lear,” the illegitimate son, Edmund, says that blaming bad behavior on planetary influences is “foppery.” He maintains that his own nature is inevitable and self-actualizing: “I should have been that I am,” he says, “had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.” There is vanity in this view of isolated self-determination—an intransigence that is a hallmark of our polarized political climate.
In a recent tweet, Pope Francis called the Virgin Mary “the first ‘influencer,’ ” encouraging others to follow her #blessed example by spreading the word of God. As Francis’s characteristically trendy claim reminds us, influence doesn’t have to be aligned with corporate interests. There are positive ways to influence people. The relentless commercialization of influence is also a corruption of the more uplifting processes through which we can affect and inspire one another. Our ongoing challenge, then, will be to negotiate the inherent inauthenticity and cynicism of an influence economy while preserving our ability to be occupied, and perhaps changed for the better, by the alien ideas of other people.