But in the last year, high-profile individuals are using platforms like Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter for more meaningful social and environmental change.
We have seen the power of the influencer to sell products. Can they also sell government on policy change?
Marcus Rashford is the latest example of what happens when you combine a social media profile with determination. In March last year, Rashford partnered with FareShare, a food distribution charity, setting himself a target of raising £100,000 to provide 400,000 meals to vulnerable school children. By June he had raised a staggering £20 million but, he acknowledged, it was just not enough to meet the growing need.
After the UK government rejected his idea to extend financial support during the holidays to kids getting free school meals during term time, his followers and supporters responded with horror and Rashford stepped up the pressure and forced Boris Johnson into a U-turn.
Rashford has a bright career ahead of him as both a footballer and as an influential policy maker. He was recently signed by Roc Nation, the US-based talent management organisation founded by rapper Jay-Z. In exchange for producing a Super Bowl halftime show viewed by hundreds of millions of people in February, Jay-Z persuaded the NFL to pledge $100 million to social justice causes over ten years. The agency is mentoring sports and media stars to turn their influence into real action.
We are witnessing huge cultural shifts as a direct or indirect result of influencers who have put campaigns like Me Too and Black Lives Matter in the spotlight. Raising the public consciousness has led to a range of policy changes being introduced across industries like law enforcement and mental health. The #sharethemicnow campaign saw 46 Black women activists take over the accounts of 46 white women celebrities like Julia Roberts (8.9 million followers) and Elizabeth Warren (2.4 million followers) to have their voices heard.
Through their hashtag activism, influencers have leveraged social media to inspire action. The same potential for changing environmental policy looks promising as influencers speak out on conservation issues because their posts are shared millions of times. One of the most visible campaigns in January this year was led by Australian comedian, Celeste Barber, who has 6.5 million Instagram followers. She sent a call to action on Facebook and raised $45 million for bushfire relief in Australia.
Can sustainability be sexy? Gone are the days when a self-serving influencer can simply sell their wares with an aspirational selfie shot, lounging on the patio of a hotel in Lake Como. The digital landscape demands authenticity from influencers, especially in a time of Covid when we are looking for relatable stories and social connection.
The pandemic has made us reflect on what is really important in the world and influencers who fight for social justice and the preservation of the planet not only strengthen their own credibility but grow their audience. Social media use has surged during COVID-19 and influencers are using their content to engage more with their followers.
While social media stars and bloggers on Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube can inspire millions of millennials and Gen Z consumers to promote positive change in their own communities, they struggle to have an impact on specific government environmental policy such as reducing subsidies for fossil fuels. But don’t underestimate the power of grassroots influencers like Bea Johnson whose zero-waste lifestyle movement has grown to influence eight of the biggest plastic polluting companies in the world. If influencers like Bea can sway enough followers to support a cause, then perhaps they can bring pressure to bear on governments and change our media icons to iconoclasts for the benefit of all of us.