Steel Brooks/Anadolu Agency via Getty Image
- As protests over the killing of George Floyd in police custody erupted in nearly every major US city, the online response to Floyd's death included influencers promoting bail funds, petitions, and more.
- Across different influencer niches, including YouTubers and TikTokers, celebrities, and lifestyle accounts, fans urged influencers to either promote Black Lives Matter or stop posting.
- When influencers posted self-promotion or "off-topic" posts before making statements, the backlash was swift. When influencers posted statements that weren't deemed sufficient, many apologized.
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On Instagram, every imaginable niche has its own influencers. Now, as protests over the killing of George Floyd roil the US, followers are demanding that influencers of all stripes with large platforms acknowledge the political climate. That includes people who like to shop at the grocery chain Trader Joe's.
Natasha Fischer has built up an audience of more than 1.1 million followers for "@traderjoeslist" by shopping at Trader Joe's, taking pictures of items there, and posting about them on Instagram. This weekend, Fischer received "thousands of comments" from her angry fanbase over her treatment of the protests on her account.
First, she was criticized for failing to post anything supporting Black Lives Matter. Fischer then posted "links directing individuals to resources if they wanted to learn more or make an impact." She tagged the post "#AllLivesMatter," a common rebuke to "Black Lives Matter" which usually comes from a misunderstanding of the goals of the movement or an effort to delegitimize it. This resulted in an even bigger backlash.
As Fischer went on to write in her apology, "I can't take back my ignorant hashtag but I can learn from it and do better. I hope this is heard and that it's understood that I made a mistake."
The comments on Fischer's apology post are still divided, and the ideological clash over a Trader Joe's hobbyist's account represents an all-encompassing shift in the influencer sphere. The protests over Floyd's killing and the institutional racism in the criminal justice system have come dominate public discussions nearly everywhere in the US, and fans are demanding participation in the movement from influencers like never before.
Unlike in past protests that gained national attention and spurred responses from influencers and celebrities, activists and protesters involved in the Floyd demonstrations are aggressively calling out inaction in digital spaces, and demanding that those with large platforms use them to boost their cause, regardless of what they normally talk about. People who have stayed silent or made missteps have quickly faced backlash severe enough to prompt public apologies.
It's representative of both the explosive current moment and evolving stances on celebrity worship and online conduct. Now, having a platform, even a relatively small one compared to A-list celebrities and influencers, carries an expectation. Fans are in control of their favorite influencer's destiny, and the message is clear: Use your platform to support Black Lives Matter, and do so quickly and meaningfully, or lose followers.
YouTubers, TikTokers, and teen celebrities appear to bear the brunt of these new expectations, especially given their young, diverse, and highly-engaged audiences.
The day before Floyd's killing, YouTuber Tana Mongeau launched an OnlyFans account to sell nude and lewd content to her fanbase. Mongeau, who has 5.4 million Instagram followers, is not usually a very political person. Her brand is being a messy high school dropout whose explicit antics entertain predominantly teenage girls.
On Saturday, as fires raged across the country, Mongeau posted a slideshow of herself smoking weed, half-undressed, and posing in designer clothing in a splashy LA home. In the caption, she promoted her OnlyFans. It was a very on-brand post for Mongeau, and her audience was furious.
Immediately underneath a few complimentary comments from friends, the backlash is clear. "So you STILL won't talk about what is happening in your own words? I am disappointed in you and not sure if I should be a fan," one commenter said. "people are dying tuna," another noted. "pls speak out about the protests tana this is embarrassing :(" pleaded one commenter.
On Twitter, a micro-influencer and real-life friend of Mongeau shared an open letter that received more than 2,000 likes calling on Mongeau to support Black Lives Matter.
—Kahlen Barry ✊🏾 (@KahlenBarry) May 31, 2020
The backlash resulted in Mongeau completely re-branding across platforms to change her various display names to "Black Lives Matter," posting various messages of support for the movement, explaining her white privilege, and linking to resources, petitions, and ways to donate.
For her fans, it was crucial that Mongeau seize the current political movement and stand up for her Black friends, peers, and followers. She quickly and enthusiastically gave into the demands, and so have most of the influencers and celebrities who were criticized. Notably, the Kardashian and Jenner sisters turned comments off on their posts, which came days after the protests had started, anticipating even more backlash after it took days to craft their statements.
Despite not having a sizeable impact on the actual protests, it's important for many teenagers who are digitally engaged to see their progressive views reflected in the people they follow. For "stan" communities, or accounts that are entirely devoted to a celebrity or influencer of the person's choice, these pro-Black Lives Matter statements are crucial to the reputation of not only the influencer but of their own fans. For "stans," their own identities are wrapped up in the people that they admire. A post from Mongeau may not instill any real change, but it gives her fans a sense of security that they are doing the right thing by continuing to support her.
On "@tiktokroom," an Instagram page dedicated to chronicling and discussing the drama of famous TikTokers, a post asked the account's nearly 700,000 followers to discuss which influencers were surprisingly silent about the protests. The responses reveal that the teen-skewing audience of famous TikTokers wants more from the people who entertain them on the app beyond their TikTok content.
"Bhad bhabie since she wants to steal our culture so bad," is one top response, referring to white 17-year-old rapper and "Dr. Phil" alum Danielle Bregoli, AKA Bhad Bhabie, who has been criticized for Black cultural appropriation. "none cause it's all expected 😐" says another top response, followed by "everybody who hasn't said anything."
And while Fischer of "@traderjoeslist" may not have devoted "stan" accounts, it's clear that embracing causes like Black Lives Matter is crucial to widespread success – unless you have a majority conservative audience, or an audience that would otherwise respond poorly to your support of Black Lives Matter.
But among apolitical accounts, the expectation to support Black lives is the loudest majority opinion. For proponents of the cause, this isn't meaningless. It suggests that among mainstream influencers and celebrities, it is no longer an easy option to stay silent. Compared to Black Lives Matter protests of past years, this expectation has only grown.
For a celebrity with a strong online following, fans expect more than just a blasé attitude about the protests.
Both Fischer and Mongeau are white female examples of the Black Lives Matter influencer backlash on social media, but even Black musician and Twitter personality Lil Nas X apologized for not speaking out sooner.
—nope (@LilNasX) May 29, 2020
"i honestly feel as though it has become so normalized that even i myself am numb to police brutality towards black people," Lil Nas X, whose real name is Montero Lamar Hill, wrote. Initially, he linked to a widely-circulated Change.org petition that has over 10 million signatures and argued that the four officers involved in Floyd's death should be fired (they were) and that charges should be filed (ex-officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd's neck, has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter).
Hill also linked to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a widely-shared bail fund for Minneapolis protesters. Many influencers and celebrities are donating and directing fans to donate to bail funds (which has inspired some on the right to push back against those donating, claiming the funds empower violence and riots).
But what Hill did next was even more popular than just his initial statements of support.
Hill went on to advise his 4.7 million Twitter followers to wear protective eyewear at protests. He pointed out specific examples of police escalating violence among peaceful protesters and defended those protesting. He helped rationalize why protesters were angry, writing "this riot/protest situation is the same as a child being bullied at school. you are silent while they are being mistreated but upset when they finally snap back. had u spoke up while they were being mistreated they wouldn't have had to snap back. silence equals complicity."
By engaging with the issues his followers cared about in such great detail, Hill proved that he wasn't just posting to avoid hate; he actually cares about Black Lives Matter, a cause that digitally-engaged teens across the US are resonating with in huge numbers. It's clear, based on Hill's thorough and well-received response to the protests, why fans of other celebrities and influencers get angry when those influencers' responses are late, are deemed "not enough," or never come at all.
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