Politicians are not known for their humility. However, as the second wave of the coronavirus swept through Britain, Conservative MP Steve Baker wasn’t afraid to show some on social media.
Baker had been asked by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford to allow him to reply to the MP’s Tweet about extending the school meals vouchers given to children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to a later date (Baker had turned off the ‘reply’ function). Baker replied, arguing that these measures would cause severe economic harm.
But the most interesting part of Baker’s response wasn’t the economic claim. His response stated: “You have 3.4 million followers Marcus, to my 96k. The power is yours here”. The white flag of surrender had been raised; Baker’s relatively smaller following meant that he had lost the online argument. The government later pledged £400 million to tackle living costs over the next 12 months for the most disadvantaged families.
Despite being one of the most influential backbenchers in the country, somebody who has one-to-one’s with prime minister Boris Johnson; how did Steve Baker succumb to feelings of powerlessness in the face of a footballer? At what point did a combination of an inspirational backstory and enormous online presence become more pivotal to shaping public policy than being an elected official?
The answer to this question cannot be realised without understanding ‘influencers’. Defining an ‘influencer’ is actually surprisingly hard to do, but they can essentially be described as individuals or small groups that exert a topical influence over a certain group of people through their online presence.
This could take the form of vloggers via their YouTube channel, or celebrities who are highly active on social media. Whilst Rashford’s initial celebrity came from a more traditional background (as a sports star), his consistent online activities mean he likely falls into such a bucket. Vlogging to a camera and casual tweeting evoke a sense of ‘relatability’ that distinguishes influencers from regular celebrities.
Internet sensations of this kind are highly sought after by brands, who pay them handsomely to promote various kinds of products. What gives these brands the bang for their buck is not the influencer’s industry knowledge, but the charismatic authority they exercise.
Despite this, many may dismiss influencers as irrelevant to social affairs. Critics lambast them as superficial figures that care more about views than values. They are often seen as symbolic of a generation glued to their screens on platforms that are eviscerating adolescent mental health.
But what these attacks on influencers appear to miss isn’t to do with their values. It is that their power is significantly underestimated. Part of the reason why the British government made such a hash of the Rashford-school meals saga was that they failed to predict the cut-through that a young, black footballer would have with the wider public.
Not every influencer has the sort of power Marcus Rashford has. But the political domain has evolved to a point where there are more than a handful of Rashford-like individuals out there. Governments and political parties need to recognise this, as influencers will increasingly start to engage in political activity.
At the heart of this trend is an ongoing seismic shift as to whom we trust and ascribe authority of knowledge production. Now, this did not happen overnight of course, but it is part of an ever changing historical process.
In the beginning there was God. For centuries the church and its representatives were seen as the sole and only fountain of truth.
Then came science. In a large part of the West, science replaced religious belief as the main source of truth. The scientific method offered an alternative to the dogmatic teachings of the church, allowing flexibility to approve and reject previously-held beliefs as our methods and accuracy of inquiry evolved.
Such progress produced the internet. This provided everyone with a voice and ability to both obtain as well as disseminate information. But online, often authority can be associated with whoever shouts the loudest.
Academic and intellectual institutions, seen as the bastion of scientific progress, now come under fire. Facing charges of group think and reductive analysis, they no longer possess the same authority as they did in previous decades.
Simple analysis, and social media platforms that prefer disseminating information through retweets, shares and followers, are what makes the age of influencers so prevalent. It is under these environments that influencers are emerging as a new voice of trustworthiness, providing an alternative source of truth and knowledge. The follower count, amount of engagement and interaction have become a direct source validating their credibility akin to academic citations.
The internet and digital technologies created a vacuum as to who should be wearing the crown of trust. With traditional sources of authority becoming ever-less relevant, influencers have become credible actors for filling this gap.
It would be a mistake to ascribe influencers’ success merely to some shallow numbers though. There is a much deeper connection, a unique relationship that they build with their followers, which makes them crave for new content like the new season of a real-life character from their favorite Netflix series. The intimate nature of this informational distribution, where a creator is speaking down the lens of their camera, makes viewers feel as if they have a special relationship with the influencer – which is a trait that fundamentally distinguishes them from celebrities who are perceived as being polished, even from another planet.
Kenneth Burke described this phenomenon in his 1969 piece “A Rhetoric of Motives”. Burke explained that humans have an urge to identify with other groups and people. As biologically separate beings, humans seek to overcome this state of separateness through communication, music, red MAGA caps, you name it.
In times of identity politics, when voters formulate their political priorities based on the identity they espouse, influencers are set to accumulate increasing power over setting the tone. Influencers speak like you and I, fire updates in a continuous loop, broadcasting a shared sense of identity unifying a critical mass of people under a common purpose.
It is this cocktail of omnipresence and relatability that creates a weird attachment and ultimately loyalty – the most valuable currency in the political casino.
The UK government thought they had seen the last of Rashford over summer, once they had awarded him an MBE. Many viewed this honour as a cynical but deserved ploy to keep the Manchester striker on side. Of course, somebody as driven by the issue as Rashford ploughed on, forcing the prime minister to call the 23 year-old in order to assure him that the government was on the right track. This should serve as a case study for governments worldwide trying to work out how to engage with powerful influencers on matters of public policy.
Should they bring them on side, early doors, in order to keep them within touching distance? People are less likely to decry governments if they have a seat at the table.
The answer to this depends on several factors. One is, of course, the issue at hand. A less controversial issue may warrant greater collaboration. For example, the Sidemen, a group of British YouTubers with over 10 million subscribers, made a widely shared ‘Stay at Home’ video during the first wave of COVID-19. However, anti-establishment parties, in turn, could use influencers to destabilise the status quo from the outside.
Eventually, there may well be a point where such influencers decide to become politicians themselves. In the game of politics, the ability to carry millions with you on issues that one cares about is a highly valuable currency. If it is possible to have the adoration that many have for the likes of Trump, Farage and Johnson, without the detractors, then this makes for unbelievably powerful leadership qualities.
Objections to this belief are reasonable. Currently, influencers curry favour with a young audience that is widely geographically dispersed. In many voting systems, this will mean that building a significant coalition of support would be tough.
However, many influencers are moving away from youth-facing platforms into the ‘mainstream media’. KSI, a British YouTuber who came to fame playing FIFA in his bedroom, is now a chart-topping rapper. He twice sold out huge arenas to have a boxing bout against American vlogger Logan Paul (whose own charisma helped him recover from major controversies). These stars are by no-means ‘staying in their lane’, meaning they will capture both traditional and new forms of public life. When will we have our first YouTuber politician?
Finally, there seems to be little sign that Marcus Rashford is stopping. Not only has he released a BBC documentary on food poverty, he has partnered with publisher Macmillan to promote reading for economically disadvantaged children. Maybe he will stand for parliament one day, maybe he won’t. What is clear, though, is that influencers have the potential to become serious political players in the issues of tomorrow. But perhaps this time the politicians in question won’t come of age playing at Eton, but playing Esports.