Blogs and accounts whose sole purpose is to ridicule powerful people are often aimed at women. However, many of those who criticize are themselves women.
An influencer’s death became a joke on Twitter. The comments section of the latest image posted on Sophia Cheung’s Instagram account, a photo of her kneeling in a white bikini next to a yellow boogie board, is filled with comments mourning her death.
Chung, 32, of Hong Kong, reportedly died after falling off a cliff while hiking with friends on Saturday. It is unclear how many followers she had at the time of her death; posthumously, her account has grown to more than 21,000 and continues to grow.
It’s also unclear whether Cheung, who allegedly died taking selfies, had any deals with brands or sponsored any of the content she posted. But reports of her death called her an “influencer” for her carefully crafted Instagram account. While her Instagram followers expressed their disbelief over her death, Twitter users used the label “Influencer” to respond with snide remarks and callous congratulations.
“New Influencer just dropped,” one person joked in response to a tweet about Cheung from the New York Post. That tweet was liked more than 5,700 times.
Comments on Cheung’s death underscore the often toxic attitude toward Influencers, who tend to be women, shared in many corners of social media and fueled by derisive accounts like Influencers in the Wild and blogs like GOMIBLOG, which stands for “Get Off My Internets,” that detach content creators from their humanity. Celebrities and those close to them have long been subject to criticism that sometimes turns vicious and cruel, but influential people, especially those experiencing tragedy, can become targets of Internet bullying, harassment and hatred. As in many other digital industries, such abuse has long been a problem.
Brooke Erin Duffy, associate professor of communications at Cornell University, says of being a social media influencer, “It’s still a career field that I don’t think is relatively clear-cut.” “Like any other feminized field, it is perceived as non-serious and therefore not taken seriously or valued.”
Harassment of Internet personalities and authority figures intensified during the coronavirus pandemic as more people communicated through digital spaces during isolation.
“People call me ugly, fat, fake. They say all kinds of horrible things about me and my family, threaten us, and you feel powerless against it because they keep getting new accounts,” Erim Kaur, a beauty and lifestyle influencer, said last year.
Experts say there are many reasons why influencers are mocked online and often become targets of abuse during personal tragedies. Some of the key factors are the disconnect people experience when commenting online, the anonymity of the Internet and a fundamental lack of understanding of content creation and the work that goes into it. But a major component of attitudes toward authority, according to Duffy, is gender hatred directed at women.
While there are many men in the sphere of influence, they are commonly referred to as “content creators,” a term borrowed and associated with YouTubers, while women are commonly referred to as “Influencers,” a term borrowed from the marketing industry and adopted by those who work on platforms like Instagram, Duffy said.
“This ideal of being visible is perceived very differently by women, by people of color, by the LGBTQ community, and especially by women in different ways about life online,” she said. “They’re judged, they’re scrutinized, and the standards they’re held to are much stricter.”
Duffy said the targets of publicly shaming accounts like GOMIBLOG and Influencers in the Wild tend to be women. However, she said, her research showed that the critics in many cases also tend to be women.
Along with the gendered harassment some Influencers face, experts raised the issue of “undeserved fame,” that such Influencers are perceived as people with no real talent or no real contribution to society, when in fact they are an arm of the marketing and advertising sector capitalizing the digital space.
“These insecure, jealous trolls who are jealous of undeserved fame and attention and get upset about that attention, these people existed before, but they didn’t have the access to media that they do now,” said Scott W. Campbell, chair of the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Michigan.
Because influence is a relatively new and not well-studied phenomenon, there is also a general skepticism that is especially prevalent among the older generation, experts said. And there is a general distrust of the authenticity of what influencers publish, even as they deal with tragedy, because much of their digital presence is curated.
Emily Hand, a researcher at the Center for Digital Culture and Society at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, recalled an example in 2019 when influential Instagram user Tiffany Mitchell posted photos after she was involved in a motorcycle accident.
The shots of Mitchell lying on the side of the road being cared for looked glossy and professional, and in one of them, a bottle of Smartwater looked like it had been neatly placed as part of the brand’s deal. Smartwater confirmed to BuzzFeed News that it had no contract with Mitchell.
Commentators lashed out at Mitchell, claiming that the accident was staged or that it was part of a debunked deal with the brand. Mitchell argued that the accident was genuine and that she didn’t know the photos had been taken before it happened.
“The space is now so heavily commercialized that followers are becoming increasingly cynical,” Hund says.
A fundamental distrust of authority — a veil of doubt about whether the self they share online is genuine — has led some online to rejoice in any misfortune that befalls them, experts say. Even when, like Cheung, a person dies under tragic circumstances.
“It’s a strange and unique form of cruelty when one feels compelled to comment on someone’s death in such a cruel way,” Hund said.