In early June, Toronto-based influencers Jessica Mulroney and Sasha Exeter got into a very public showdown. It began when Mulroney reacted to Exeter’s call to influencers to use their visibility and networks to support Black Lives Matter (BLM). Mulroney took Exeter’s call personally, perceiving it to be an indictment of her own inaction, as she had not posted about the movement and continued to promote her own reality show “I Do, Redo” on
Instagram. Exeter then posted a video called “My ‘AMY COOPER’ Experience” where she documented Mulroney’s efforts to silence her including threats to end Exeter’s career through a media war. Exeter explained that Mulroney had DM’ed (direct messaged) her multiple times to complain about the BLM post.
She explained that she posted the video to show that she, as a Black woman, was not going to be intimidated by Mulroney, a white woman, bullying her behind the scenes. Mulroney apologized in an Instagram post then moments later DM’ed Exeter (fig 1) threatening to sue her. Numerous journalists then picked up the story in articles like “What Exactly Happened Between Jessica Mulroney and Sasha Exeter?” by Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz of The CUT (2020).
Anthropologist Webb Keane argues that “The enduring effects of one’s reputation depend on words of others, which can shape one’s interactive possibilities” (2014, 10). Likewise, the sway of an influencer is never entirely “theirs” because influence relies so much on their interactive possibilities with followers. This is perhaps why campaigns to “cancel” or withdraw support for a person or company when they have said or done something offensive find traction on Instagram. Brand deals are about as robust as their spokespeople. Influencers may think they have clout but when perceived duplicity, inauthenticity, or bullying is revealed support may be withdrawn overnight revealing another meaning of the platform’s nickname “Insta.” Ilana Gershon, an anthropologist of social media, offers the view that a person must maintain a consistent and coherent “branded personality” (2014) because in an age where a person is a brand one misstep can mean catastrophic failure. For influencers who make social media their job, self and brand are fused; the brand influences the influencer, the influencer shapes the brand, and others follow with their reactions, shares, and wallets (think about the role of influencers on pandemic home design, DIY, and all the purchases that go with that). It may be tempting to leave it there: influencers have sway because they have followers who support their brands. But there are a number of other phenomena that help “keep up” the brand-self unit and, just as quickly, can break it. If the Mulroney/Exeter story is any indication, it may be that “followers” is hardly the best description of how things go on Instagram.
Influencers and Followers
It is true that influencers hold power. I am the first to admit to falling into influencer trends and makeup styles. Influencers often say they are being “authentic” with followers who consume their products. But a follower’s loyalty is not infinite and can sway depending on the actions of the influencer. Influencers must consistently uphold the persona they display on social media but that is not enough when followers’ smell duplicity. Mulroney, despite her efforts to mirror her personal life on Instagram, was dropped from multiple contracts and planned projects when outraged followers and companies sought to divest from her and her brands. As followers explained, Mulroney had violated a cardinal rule of influencers: the seamless chord between online and offline person. She had posted an insincere apology while threatening to sue Exeter behind the scenes. It was the surest way to fail.
The Synopticon and the Insta-Fail
Instagram affords people a place to put their life online. More than instrumental strategies of display, Instagram, TicToc, YouTube and other platforms are affective sites for community and solidarity as we saw this summer as users put black squares on their pages to show support for BLM. These instances also allow for a type of monitoring. Influencers are watched closely by their followers and others to see what they do and what they use but also what they do wrong. Simone Browne describes this as a version of Mathiesen’s synopticon (1997) in which “the many watch the few in a mass-mediated fashion” (2015, 38). This hyper visibility contributes to the fashioning of particular norms for behavior on Instagram and holds influencers to account. Gershon cautions that a single person is never in control of their media because other people mediate and intercede in a person’s performance (2014, 282). Exeter’s interception of Mulroney was a virtual reality check of that influencer in the eyes of their followers. An influencer must balance many aspects of their online life and a significant part of that is recognizing the social setting and climate they are involved in. A behind the scenes encounter can easily get splashed on social media and followers expect to see the same person they see in Instagram videos.
The myth that influencer-follower would be the only (or primary) direction of power is oversimplified and logistically incorrect. Social media operates on the court of public opinion which is often very fickle. Instagram has allowed many to speak their truth and share their stories like Sasha Exeter did on her profile. It empowers people and has the power to cancel objectionable views and actions. At the same time, agency is shared, watched, mediated, and interceded in countless follower-influencer relationships. Divestment in the age of BLM will therefore need a lot more analysis of the multiple meanings of “influence,” “follow,” and “cancel” and the implications of these things in social life and for racial justice specifically.
Exeter, Sasha (@sashaexeter). 2020a. Instagram story. June 12, 2020. Accessed June 12, 2020. https://www.instagram.com/sashaexeter/?hl=en.
Exeter, Sasha (@sashaexeter). 2020b. “My “Amy Cooper” Experience”. June 10, 2020. Accessed August 10, 2020. https://www.instagram.com/tv/CBRew5rHE5y/?hl=en.
Mulroney, Jessica (@jessicamulroney). 2020. “Please read my statement. It is from my heart.” June 11, 2020. Accessed August 10, 2020. https://www.instagram.com/p/CBTeLhQlEzm/. Gershon, Ilana. 2014. “Selling Your Self in the United States.” Political and Legal Anthropology Review 37(2): 281-295. DOI: 10.1111/plar.12075. Keane, Webb. 2014. “Affordances and Reflexivity in Ethical Life: An Ethnographic Stance”. Anthropological Theory 14(1): 3-26. DOI: 10.1177/1463499614521721. Mathiesen, Thomas. 1997. “The Viewer Society: Michel Foucault’s ‘Panopticon’ Revisited.” Theoretical Criminology 1(2):215-234. https://doi- org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/10.1177/1362480697001002003