How authentic can an influencer be when he or she doesn’t really exist? By Marcus Wong
By now, I’m sure you know about social influencers. With large followings on social media, these individuals are deemed to be able to influence the masses by sharing what they consume.
They can be anyone, but generally, they’ve spent the time to build reputations as authorities on a particular subject. Anything they like enough to feature is seen by their followers, which in turn tends to lead to increased sales for the thing.
The ease of reposting a comment means a single photo or video post can be shared with ten times the original audience. This makes it easy to see why brands see social media as an avenue to extend their marketing. After all, opinions from real people are more authentic than an advertisement, aren’t they?
Maybe. As more companies tap on influencers to market their product, more cases of inauthentic posts have started to surface. Likes and followers are bought not earned, leading to fake metrics. And cases of fraud exist; at least one photographer has tried passing off other’s work as his own. Plus, stories of influencers extorting free or discounted stays at hotels and resorts have arisen.
But if fake opinions from real people are an issue, what about real opinions from fake people? Meet supermodel Shudu Gram and musician Lil Miquela. Shudu Gram’s Instagram account has 130,000 followers from only 27 posts. She shot to fame when Rhianna’s makeup company, Fenty Beauty, reposted an image of Shudu wearing a shade of its lipstick.
Lil Miquela has 1.3 million followers on her Instagram account. She’s partnered with Giphy and Prada, showing off their latest creations on her feed. Besides having her own Spotify page, Miquela is also an activist for equal rights. She encourages her followers to donate to causes like the Black Girls Code and to be a “better ally” to transgender people. Sounds like a real person with a heart, doesn’t it?
Except neither Shudu nor Miquela exists. Both are CGI creations that only live online and in the minds of their creators. Brud, the company behind Miquela, has raised millions of dollars from venture capitalists like Sequoia Capital. It has created at least two other virtual influencers, Blawko22 and BermudaisBae. Both are gaining followers rapidly, with 133,000 and 82,900 followers respectively. Bae, in particular, created a stir when she allegedly hacked Miquela’s account to “force” her into admitting that she’s a robot, not a human.
We now have two influencers who, for all intents and purposes, are not real humans. But they’ve captured the attention of thousands. They don’t pretend to be human but have an audience that brands would love to get access to, and so endorsement deals will surely be on the way.
But how authentic can a virtual personality be when she can’t actually taste or feel the products she’s “using”? And who’s the actual influencer? Is it the virtual personality, or the person who created the virtual personality? This is not as clear-cut as it may seem. Anybody can control a social media feed, more so when they don’t have to front it. It could be a single person, or ten different people posting, and we would be none the wiser.
There is no legal precedent governing virtual influencers yet. Nor is there anything stopping brands from creating their own virtual influencers that only say good things. As much as we can accept that online personas are not our real-world selves, this is taking it to another level.
Virtual characters are only going to get more and more life-like too. Companies like Quantum Capture are working on digital humans that will make the current generation of virtual influencers look low-res in comparison. These virtual influencers are going to pick up steam. But how real can influence be if it comes from people that don’t even exist?
DIGITAL IMAING ASHRUDDIN SANI PICTURES LIL MIQUELA, SHUDU GRAM, 123RF