Under the Influence: Combatting Neutrality on Social Media

Story by Kiara Gorrospe

As the country grapples with drastic shifts in the ‘new normal,’ social media influencers have kept to their bubbles of privilege — comfortably disconnected from the harsh realities faced by the masses. 

The luxurious lifestyles often promoted by these personalities on social media are notorious for sowing both admiration and criticism from the public. However, amid mass layoffs and social distancing mandates, the persistence of these extravagant displays comes as a slap in the face to those at the brunt of the pandemic’s economic downturn.

Yaz Capistrano is well aware of the growing dissonance between internet fame and the alarming state of current political affairs. The content creator has had her fair share of attention online, boasting over 560,000 followers and 15.6 million views on TikTok. An ‘influencer’, however, Yaz insists she is anything but.

“I honestly don’t [like the word ‘influencer’]. The self-proclaimed majority of them feel like they’re celebrities, that they’re ‘untouchables,’” she said. 

Yaz makes no secret of her convictions. When not replying to fan comments or cracking jokes, the 19-year-old calls out the close-minded behavior of conservative, older Filipino relatives in her ‘Kwentong Marites’ series. Other times, she criticizes colorism in the local TikTok community as well as in everyday remarks. 

“My mutuals and I aren’t scared to raise awareness about [these] things,” Yaz said.

As Filipinos deal with pandemic grievances and increased state violence, Yaz believes that using social media platforms can change the way the public talks about these issues. 

For instance, when Typhoon Ulysses struck in November 2020, Yaz’s corner of the internet immediately sprung to action to assist relief efforts. The creator hosted a charity fundraiser on live streaming site Twitch in support of relief operation drives.

Yaz was frustrated at the silence from local verified creators both on and outside TikTok. The reach of an account with millions of followers could easily overtake her and her mutuals’ couple hundred thousand. Times such as those, Yaz insists, is where the so-called influencers’ values are put into test.

“The people were saying na hindi sila nagpo-post [about relief efforts] kasi it will ruin their feed. And I was like, guys, we’re Filipinos. At the end of the day, we all bleed the same color,” Yaz said. “What’s holding you back from helping people?”

All the world’s a platform

Individual platforms are integral to the influence of a social media personality, said De La Salle University Sociology professor Crisanto Regadio, Jr.

Ang ‘influencer,’ ibig sabihin, they have the capacity to alter, o kaya naman improve, ‘yung attitude and behavior [ng audience] towards a particular phenomenon,” Regadio said. 

He notes, however, that this definition is constrained by a lack of empirical evidence in academic studies.

Regadio advises caution in the public’s use of the term due to the power it bestows upon online personalities. What he calls “social media entertainers” are often mistaken for influencers. Still, both share platforms large enough to cultivate significant influence despite differences in approach.

The emergence of social media influencers, Regadio said, is no different to that of traditional showbiz personalities. Their prominence on their respective platforms opens up other avenues for them to exert influence — particularly, endorsements and advertisements.

“Hindi na ‘to sa context ng pagiging influencer nila, kundi doon sa may platform mismo. Wala naman ‘tong kinalaman doon sa mga tao. May kinalaman ‘to doon sa recall,” Regadio said. “Pwede nating sabihin na influencer sila kung nagbago ‘yung pananaw saka behavior ng mga consumers nila.” 

The line between social media influencers and celebrities tends to blur. Celebrities often gain popularity on social media as an extension of their existing fame, while social media personalities become known in spaces outside their online communities. 

Yaz points out that the feeling of being a celebrity tends to cross most influencers’ minds at some point, creating an air of arrogance within the influencer sphere. “Parang kailangan naka-iPhone 12 ka bago mo sila kausapin. Gan’un yung vibe ko lang sa kanila,” she said.

Regadio owes this to the observation that Filipinos’ appreciation of social media is still heavily anchored on traditional media. Most people from far-flung areas may only recognize social media personalities featured on television and movies. DubSmash star Maine Mendoza, for example, would not have become a household name had her internet fame not propelled her to GMA’s Eat Bulaga.

“Kung titingnan natin siya sa domain lang ng social media at hindi geographically, then popular talaga sila (social media influencers) kasi maraming follower. ‘Yung popularity nila, naha-highlight sa mga television shows, so nae-expand ‘yung market nila,” Regadio said. 

When social media influencers benefit from their platforms, the responsibilities that come with such power may get muddled in the glamor of it all. 

Beyond the screen

The realm of social media dominated by influencers is a controversial one, Yaz admits. Between “cancel culture” and moral ascendancy, making a modest name for oneself amid increasing tensions in the online space is difficult territory to tread.

“The people who are taking care of their image, it’s the other side of influencers. They don’t talk about [their political stances]. ‘I want to stay neutral,’ ganiyan ang sinasabi,” Yaz said. “[But] people are dying here!”

As deaths caused by the slew of calamities and politically charged killings plagued the latter half of 2020, all but a handful of online personalities dared speak out on such issues. 

This may have to do, however, with the business terms of the influencer industry. The influence and reach of online content creators often open them up to a slew of business opportunities. As Regadio said, influencers’ initial fame makes it easier for audiences to recall instances where their names and faces are attached to endorsements.

“May mga managers [ang] mga social influencers,” Yaz said. “Brands are also keeping in touch with the online personalities here and there.”

Despite the general struggle of influencers to balance personal advocacies and advertiser-friendly content, a handful of them chose to rise up to the occasion and utilize their reach well. 

Content creators Mark “Macoy Dubs” Averilla, Marita “Aling Marie” Dinglasan, Mark Geronimo, and many other online personalities filed the 21st petition against the Anti-Terrorism Bill back in July 2020 to much praise from the public. Felix Petate, popularly known as Sassa Gurl, makes no secret of their presence at protests and political mobilizations. 

As more social media personalities speak out on national issues, a clear trajectory has been set for the idols the public wants to see. Previous notions of the so-called ‘influencer lifestyle,’ as exhibited by the likes of Heart Evangelista and Solenn Heusaff, are being rejected and called out by some for their sheer ostentatiousness.

With the size of the platforms they possess, influencers evidently have the power to generate buzz on whatever they bring attention to. 

Colourette Cosmetics, for example, saw a jump in sales after CEO Nina Dizon called out the Duterte administration for the lack of proactive response to natural hazards and the mishandling of relief operations for Typhoon Ulysses victims. 

Despite receiving backlash from pro-government accounts as a result of being critical, her company still managed to raise P1.6 million for victims of the disaster. 

As sociopolitical conditions are aggravated by the pandemic, various careers and forms of entertainment are constantly being questioned and forced to evolve – influencers included.

It pays to be reminded that the personalities behind the influencer machinery are simply people. Vital as their reach may be in amplifying issues they choose to bring attention to, they are far from the forces of salvation they are perceived to be. 

Mistakes will be made and remarks will slip. As consumers of their content and fellow occupants of the online space, audiences must continue exercising responsibility when navigating the sea of influencer content and discourse.

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