By Tom Westgarth and Walter Pasquarelli
Politicians are not known for their humility. However, when the second wave of coronavirus swept through the UK, Conservative MP Steve Baker wasn’t afraid to show some on social media.
Baker had been asked by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford to respond to the MP’s tweet about extending the school meal vouchers for children with a lower socioeconomic background to a later date (Baker turned off the reply feature). Baker replied, arguing that these measures would cause serious economic damage.
The most interesting part of Baker’s answer, however, wasn’t the economic claim. He replied, “You have 3.4 million followers, Marcus, among my 96,000. The power is yours here. “The white flag of surrender had been hoisted; Baker’s relatively small followers meant he’d lost the online argument. The government later pledged £ 400 million to cover the cost of living for the most disadvantaged families over the next 12 months.
Despite being one of the most influential backers in the country, someone who is one on one with Prime Minister Boris Johnson; How did Steve Baker succumb to feeling faint in the face of a soccer player? When did a combination of an inspiring backstory and a huge online presence become more important than an elected official in shaping public order?
The answer to this question cannot be realized without understanding the “influencers”. Defining an “influencer” is actually surprisingly difficult, but they can essentially be described as individuals or small groups who, through their online presence, have a current impact on a particular group of people.
This can take the form of vloggers through their YouTube channel, or from celebrities who are very active on social media. While Rashford’s initial fame came from a more traditional background (as a sports star), his consistent online activity means he’s likely falling into such a bucket. Logging on to a camera and occasionally tweeting creates a sense of “relativity” that distinguishes influencers from normal celebrities.
Internet sensations of this nature are in great demand with brands who pay them well to advertise different types of products. What gives these brands the bang for their buck is not the influencer’s industry knowledge, but the charismatic authority they wield.
Even so, many influencers can dismiss them as irrelevant to social issues. Critics refer to them as superficial figures to whom views are more important than values. They are often viewed as a symbol of a generation glued to their screens on platforms devoid of adolescent mental health exemptions.
But what these influencer attacks seem to be missing out on has nothing to do with their values. It is so that their power is clearly underestimated. One reason the UK government made such hash out of the Rashford School food saga was because they couldn’t predict the breakthrough a young black footballer would have with the general public.
Not every influencer has the power that Marcus Rashford has. But the political domain has grown to the point where there are more than a handful of Rashford-like individuals. Governments and political parties need to acknowledge this as influencers will increasingly engage in political activity.
At the center of this trend is an ongoing seismic shift that we trust and ascribe the authority to knowledge production. Well, of course, this didn’t happen overnight, but it is part of an ever-changing historical process.
In the beginning there was God. For centuries the church and its representatives were considered the sole and sole source of truth.
Then came science. In much of the West, science has replaced religious belief as the main source of truth. The scientific method offered an alternative to the dogmatic teachings of the Church and allowed the flexibility to approve and reject previously held beliefs as our methods and the accuracy of the investigation evolved.
Such advances have produced the Internet. This gave everyone the voice and ability to both receive and disseminate information. But online authority can often be associated with whoever shouts the loudest.
Academic and intellectual institutions, seen as the bastions of scientific progress, are now coming under attack. Given the accusations of groupthink and reductive analysis, they no longer have the same authority as they have in previous decades.
Simple analytics and social media platforms that prefer to disseminate information via retweets, shares, and followers are what make the age of influencers so common. In these environments, influencers evolve into a new voice of trustworthiness that provides an alternate source of truth and knowledge. The number of followers, level of engagement, and interaction have become a direct source that confirms their credibility, much like academic quotes.
The internet and digital technologies have created a vacuum as to who should wear the crown of trust. As traditional sources of authority become less and less relevant, influencers have become credible actors to fill this void.
However, it would be a mistake to attribute the success of influencers to only a few small numbers. There’s a much deeper connection, a unique relationship they build with their followers, which makes them crave new content like the new season of a real character from their favorite Netflix series. The intimate nature of this information distribution, with a creator speaking through the lens of his camera, makes the viewer feel like they have a special relationship with the influencer – a quality that fundamentally sets them apart from celebrities who are perceived as polished even from another Planets.
Kenneth Burke described this phenomenon in his 1969 piece “A Rhetoric of Motives”. Burke explained that people have an urge to identify with other groups and people. As biologically separated beings, humans try to overcome this state of separation through communication, music, red MAGA caps, as you call them.
In an era of identity politics, where voters formulate their political priorities based on the identity they represent, influencers will gain increasing power to set the tone. Influencers speak like you and me, firing updates in an endless loop, and sending out a shared sense of identity that unites a critical mass of people under a common purpose.
It is this cocktail of ubiquity and relativity that creates a strange bond and ultimately loyalty – the most valuable currency in the political casino.
The UK government believed it saw the last one from Rashford in the summer after awarding him an MBE. Many saw the honor as a cynical but deserved ploy to keep the Manchester striker on his side. Someone, of course, as driven by the issue as Rashford and forcing the Prime Minister to call the 23-year-old to assure him that the government was on the right track. This should serve as a case study for governments around the world trying to figure out how to work with powerful influencers on public policy issues.
Should they put them aside, early doors, to keep them within reach? People are less likely to decipher governments when they have a seat at the table.
The answer to this depends on several factors. One thing is of course the problem. A less controversial topic may warrant greater collaboration. For example, the Sidemen, a group of British YouTubers with over 10 million subscribers, made a widespread “Stay at Home” video during the first wave of COVID-19. However, anti-establishment parties could in turn use influencers to destabilize the status quo from the outside.
After all, there may well be a point at which such influencers decide to become politicians themselves. In the game of politics, the ability to take millions away on matters of interest is an extremely valuable currency. If it is possible to have the adoration that many have for Trump, Farage and Johnson without the critics, then it leads to incredibly strong leadership skills.
Objections to this belief are reasonable. Right now, influencers prefer a young audience that is geographically dispersed. In many voting systems, this means that building a significant support coalition would be difficult.
However, many influencers are moving away from youth-oriented platforms into the “mainstream media”. KSI, a British YouTuber who got famous in his bedroom at FIFA, is now a top-chart rapper. He sold huge arenas twice to fight a boxing match against American vlogger Logan Paul (whose own charisma helped him recover from major controversy). These stars are by no means staying on their trail, which means they are capturing both traditional and new forms of public life. When do we have our first YouTuber politician?
After all, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that Marcus Rashford is quitting. In addition to publishing a BBC documentary on food poverty, he has worked with Macmillan publisher to promote reading for economically disadvantaged children. Maybe one day he’ll stand up for Parliament, maybe not. What is clear, however, is that influencers have the potential to become serious political actors in the issues of tomorrow. But maybe this time around, the politicians in question won’t grow up playing at Eton, but at esports.
Tom Westgarth and Walter Pasquarelli are policy advisors with Oxford Insights. They specialize in understanding trends in new technology and AI.