Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, social media has become home to a variety of crucial conversations surrounding social and political movements. The Black Lives Matter movement found a monumental spotlight in the summer of 2020, and in 2021 Stop Asian Hate, the Palestine-Israel crisis, and a women’s safety movement were at the forefront of online dialogue. However, alongside this, the expectation of societal awareness from large online creators with far-reaching young audiences has flourished. Where do their responsibilities lie when it comes to educating or influencing the adolescent population? How responsible is it to rely on social media content producers to produce political takes for millions of viewers to assimilate?
The rise of political influencers
In October 2020, a month prior to the US presidential elections, 22-year-old American internet personality Tana Mongeau offered free nude photos to fans in exchange for proof they voted for democratic candidate Joe Biden. The #bootyforbiden movement was born, and a link to her content subscription service OnlyFans was linked for fans to enter. This was later deemed illegal, as vote-buying, or any exchange of money or goods for a voter’s support is a felony, which can be punishable by a fine or up to two years in prison. Regardless of the illegalities of the movement, it sparks a conversation on the powerful influence social media creators who are best known for YouTube storytimes, scandalous tabloids, and honest videos have on young people’s voting choices.
As an example of legally influencing voters, on the other hand, YouTuber David Dobrik pulled a similar stunt in an effort to get his followers to register to vote. He did this in partnership with HeadCount, a non-profit that primarily works with musicians to promote democratic participation in the United States. David Dobrik encouraged his followers to send proof of voter registration to automatically enter a giveaway with a chance to win a Tesla. According to Forbes, it was the largest voting drive in the 16-year history of HeadCount and the largest voter registration success by an individual in modern US politics, resulting in 120,000 Americans registering to vote in the 2020 elections.
In the case of David Dobrik, his giveaway did not sway the opinion of his viewers, his influence and power as a large creator however prompted a wave of young involvement in politics, as did Tana Mongeau’s movement. This impact in itself is admirable, yet although I was grateful to see someone with a platform as large as Tana Mongeau swaying the voters to a democratic candidate, the thought that this same thing could occur with right-wing ‘political influencers’ was worrying. Is it reasonable in any capacity for these social stars to have such an impact on American politics?
Conservative social media personality Kaitlin Bennett or conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro, have amassed millions of followers and viewers. Yes, to an extent, to the general online public they appear to be a public lightning rod for mocking conservatives, however, they have an influence and followers who listen to them. These public figures proudly advocate for anti-abortion policies, homophobia, islamophobia, and racist ideologies, and infiltrate impressionable users’ online feeds, impacting their views subconsciously. It’s concerning to imagine that, in the same way, that Tana Mongeau and David Dobrik have had a grip on hundreds of thousands of voters, they could as well.
Woke teenagers in the making?
For legal reasons, Tana Mongeau was never able to send free nudes to the Biden voters, however, just the sheer impact of the #bootyforbiden campaign is proof enough of the online bandwagon effect that is cultivated on social media. It is crucial to encourage critical thinking skills when it comes to absorbing political opinions online, and not to exclusively derive your views from internet personas.
When placing such importance on pop culture figures’ opinions, there is a chance that these can spread misinformation that is blindly absorbed by social media scrollers, and the result is everything but politically progressive or ‘woke’ teenagers.
This lack of analytical deliberation and the tendency to follow the crowd is very concerning, as many don’t take a minute to doubt a widely accepted ‘fact’, leading to radicalization and conspiracy theories. Especially when coming from an internet figure, who is deemed reliable, it is difficult to draw the line between what is the hard truth and what is sensationalization. There is a lack of independent opinions being established, as there is a constant need to adhere to the current ‘trend’ of judgment.
Democracy and governmental participation, especially in young generations, is something that should be consistently promoted. However, mobilizing people behind social figures, and placing these figures’ opinions on a pedestal, does not foster independent, informed decision-making or free-thinking. Rather, people begin to see politics as a game of picking sides; sides which are either scrutinized or praised by online audiences and these political sides are not black and white, as they may appear online. Picking sides, such as on the one hand liberal Democrats siding with Tana Mongeau, or right-wing Republicans rallying behind Kaitlin Bennett or Ben Shapiro, only results in more polarization. There is no box politically that voters must fall in, there is no one perfect candidate, and idealizing political figures, or the social media stars that represent them, is not what voting should depend on, nor what political representation is meant to be.
Cover: Joshua Sukoff
Edited by: Melike Alpay