How Do Influencers Use Their Voice, Anyway?

40-year-old Brandon Bernard was executed on December 10 at a Federal Correctional Center in Indiana for a crime he committed in 1999. Bernard, a Black male, was sentenced to death for his gang involvement related to a double-murder in Texas when he was 18 years old. Because of his incarceration, the father of two died never having been able to physically touch his children.

I learned about the tragic details of Brandon Bernard’s story not through any mainstream news outlet, but via a series of tweets from internet mogul Kim Kardashian.

Kardashian is reportedly working, among other projects, on becoming a lawyer. Her particular interest in prison reform has led her to share other stories of the unjustly imprisoned online before, in specific that of Alice Johnson, whom Kardashian famously worked on behalf of with the Trump administration to grant Johnson clemency.

Kim’s tweets about Bernard were sent with a sense of urgency last Thursday, as time was running out for the federal government to intervene ahead of his execution. Many on social media then mobilized to try to contact government officials and share Bernard’s story with other followers in the hopes his execution would not be carried out. Their efforts were unsuccessful. Bernard was the sixteenth person to be put to death in America this year.

The aftermath of this news, met with the federal execution of Alfred Bourgeois–another Black male– just one day after, drew attention to the ongoing online dialogue about prison reform, mass incarceration and racist flaws in the justice system. #AbolishTheDeathPenalty trended in response to Bernard’s execution.

In the online circles of discussion about Bernard’s death, I noticed a number people scolding certain social media influencers for not spreading awareness about his case. TikTok stars Charli and Dixie D’Amelio and Addison Rae were tagged in videos and tweets charging them with doing nothing to address their audiences on the subject.

These criticisms harken back to this summer, where it seemed media attention on the Black Lives Matter movement was indistinguishably intertwined with celebrity and influencer voices. The combined issues of George Floyd’s murder, the COVID-19 pandemic and the impending Presidential election seemed to back those with high follow counts into a corner; the implications of remaining neutral or silent were too loud.

It seems those blessed or cursed with fame today have accepted a responsibility that may have not existed in the recent past. In order to enjoy the privilege of being a trending personality, you must exist within the space of other trending topics. The aforementioned Kim Kardashian often attempts to strike a balance with this. As she promotes her many business ventures in beauty, fragrance and fashion on her large social media platform, sprinkled in are her fleeting takes on current events.

Prison reform, I would say, is the issue Kim is most passionate about, having engaged in more than one-off posting on the topic. Single tweets and posts about other issues, like gun control, climate change or Coronavirus, to name a few from the recent past, seem to pepper her online presence as a way to confirm a degree of self awareness. Kardashians and other online influencer types tend to post generic messages about hot topics as participation trophies. I posted about Black Lives Matter today, where’s my Girl scout badge on the matter? And with public opinion operating like a checklist, it is certainly a luxury to decline comment.

On the other hand, the average person’s ability to access and spread information today is unfettered. In 2020, it seems some everyday people have taken it upon themselves to act in the manner that is being asked of large internet stars by sharing political and social information as if their reputation depended on it. The difference between the two types of worlds here is the average person’s risk of association to political ties can directly effect their business, careers and personal relationships. Whereas a celebrity’s tweet about social justice tailed by a sponsored or promotional post may not stand out, someone in your community’s hot take on structural inequities could very well lead to them getting doxed, fired, or cyberstalked. For us regular folks, it is a gamble to be outspoken.

Among the young and famous criticized for their silence about Brandon Bernard’s execution was beauty Youtuber James Charles, who appears to run in the same hyper-relevant circles as the D’Amelio sisters these days.

In a series of now-deleted tweets, James responded to backlash from followers stating: “You can’t win. Ignore something, people are upset. Speak about something, people are still upset.” 

“Instead of focusing anger towards influencers,” he continued in another now-deleted tweet, “we should be directing our anger to our country’s f–ked up legal system that unjustly took the life of Brandon Bernard today. Justice will one day be served and it’s important that we use our voices and platforms to hopefully make a change for the better.”

However, on the issue of using one’s voice, James further tweeted: “There are some days I’m on my phone from the moment I wake up to the time I go to bed, but there are also some days where I barely pick it up because I’m busy doing other things. No one, not even influencers, can be aware of every single thing happening 24/7.”

There’s elements of truth in each of his statements. Online, merely existing is guaranteed to piss somebody off, especially considering a person’s identity is more widely open to examination on social media. Another interesting point Charles presents is misdirected anger toward online influencers for their missteps on social issues. Are personal attacks being virtually launched at SCOTUS members or political leaders the way they are at viral TikTok dancers and Instagram models? Frustrations were certainly voiced to those with hands in the criminal justice world, but their comments do not hold the same weight of scandal a tweet from a beautiful celebrity may carry. In the same vein, do we become critical of the people in our own lives when they don’t tweet, post or share for the purpose of social change? Am I to “cancel” my distant relatives or coworkers for their absence in posting about something I believe to be important? Of course not, because having an opinion or taking a stance in today’s world is only valued when it can be commodified.

I believe the solution here lies within who we as a public make famous in the first place. For some reason we propel privileged teenagers into the spotlight and act surprised when their attitudes about current affairs are disappointing. If their platform is large and influential, they of course accept a responsibility to at the very least not be harmful. That said, guys and gals that shake their hips to beats in 15 second videos are not inherently charged with teaching their audiences. Even those with followers in the millions could benefit from just stepping back and listening to others.

One incredible thing I saw from events this summer was a large public refocusing on more marginalized communities’ voices. Talented Black men and women in the entertainment space, who have always used their voice, were suddenly handed the megaphone in the wake of recent national racial unrest. It would serve the internet well to launch such valuable voices into the same fame and commodity as the D’Amelios or Charles or Kardashian. When we tailor our timelines and social media experience with purpose and put agency back in the act of “following” others, the messages we receive will cause more impact and, if you’re seeking it, change.