Between Populist Leaders and Online ‘Influencers’, a Common Style

Donald Trump recently described his social media usage as ‘MODERN DAY presidential’. The claim is easy to dismiss: on a global scale, boorishness in high office is nothing new — even if now distilled into 140 characters. Yet the provocation is powerful because it contains a grain of truth. It is a contemporary zeitgeist for a president to use social media at any time of day or night to communicate directly with citizens. It is also an increasingly prominent feature of politics for citizens, aided by such social media engagement, to form a political attachment to an individual, not a party.

But the story of the digitally assisted cult of the individual is not about Trump alone. It is not even about contemporary politics alone. The last two years have witnessed the rise to prominence of the online ‘influencer’ — individuals who through their social media presence are, like Trump, able to earn and sway vast swathes of ‘followers’. Their fields of influence range from fashion to ‘wellness’, from food to entrepreneurship. Some, like Pewdiepie, the highest-paid and most viewed YouTube star globally (as reported in February 2017), have built a career almost exclusively on the basis of their online influence. The most successful influencers are empire builders, selling their own products and those of brands across sectors who hungrily compete to contract their influencing power. Businesses make an average of $6.50 for every $1 they spend on influencer marketing.

Via a plump screen presence, these individuals variously compete to win our attention, money, taste, dedication, emotions, and consumer choices. To this task, many online influencers deploy a common style, one shared with populist leaders. Intentionally or otherwise, they fuse an image of authority, a sense of direct emotional connection and a veneer of authenticity and accessibility to accrue outsized online followership. We should be alert to the pervasiveness of this cultish style, aware that its ubiquity risks jeopardising plurality in how we think and behave.

Populism, Authority and Emotional Connection

Populism, Federico Finchelstein writes, promotes “the figure of the leader” who is venerated as “the best interpreter of the will of the people”. Citizens outsource their judgment to the populist leader on the basis of this belief. As the populist leader instructs and interprets, devoted followers swallow every word.

These devotees are no fiction. Populist leaders are often admired, even as they inflate the image of their popularity by denying any opposition from within the ‘true’ nation. Trump grossly exaggerated the turnout at his presidential inauguration, but he did win almost 63 million individual votes. Some of those were undoubtedly cast for him, not against Hillary Clinton.

The appearance of authority does not alone explain this popularity. There are many causes. A ‘strong man’ image, moreover, could alienate potential followers. Populists, especially left-leaning ones, thus soften their vertical authority through constructing a familiar style — a sense of closeness with every loyal citizen. Think of Hugo Chávez in his tracksuit. Or, as Benjamin Moffitt notes, Lázaro Cardenas rejecting a grand buffet in his honour and buying a chocolate bar from a market stall instead. Through these performances of familiarity and anti-elitism leaders powerfully intimate their ‘oneness’ with the people and their dedication to eradicating their struggles.

Online Influencers, Authority and Emotional Connection

The fusing of intimacy and authority is a powerful prop for anyone seeking to amass a frenzied followership, not only politicians. Kayla Itsines, 26, lives in Adelaide, Australia. A fitness instructor and social media ‘influencer’, she rose to social media prominence through her Bikini Body Guide (BBG), a low-cost downloadable workout programme. As one journalist describes, BBG has become ‘not just a workout out but a way of life’ for many of her lithe (or skinny-aspirant) devotees. On Instagram, those (predominantly female) followers currently number 7.1 million. Her company has a rumoured value of £28 million.

Image credit: ‘El legado de Evita’ June 27, 2012, Hernán Piñera

Itsines has an air of Evita about her. Evita, the charismatic and beautiful young wife of the populist Argentine President Juan Perón (1946 — 55, 1973 — 74), came to represent the ‘Eternal Mother’ for many Argentines through appearing both affectionate and resolute in her convictions. Itsines, like Evita, is didactic and maternal (or big sisterly), frequently expressing her ‘care’ for her followers. “It’s my responsibility to make them feel like they’re my family,” she explains.

At a recent book signing, Itsines reportedly hugged each devotee and posed for a photo with them. She thus offered them physical intimacy and a visual aide-memoire of their moment of direct contact with her. These bids for connection, in tandem with her lifestyle guidance, have a populist valence, mixing intimacy and authority. The combination works: many of her fans willingly identify as members of #Kaylasarmy (#Corbynsarmy was a later social media invention), pledging allegiance to her brand.

Participation

Populist leaders promote a sense of committed attachment among their followers but also encourage them to feel like active participants. Populism typically promotes an anaemic form of participation — the facile reproduction of the discourse of the leader: ‘Make America great again!’, ‘Chávez Lives, the Fatherland Continues!’ Sometimes, however, more active (if rarely influential) participation is encouraged. Juan Perón helped to build legitimacy by asking citizens to write him letters, offering policy suggestions. Between late 1951 and mid 1952, he received around 42, 000 communications.

Itsines posts photos and inspirational messages but also makes her followers feel like active participants in her ‘community’. Here, participation means replicating her mantra and body. Devoted women uses Instagram to track their ‘wellbeing’ through revealing their near-naked bodies ‘before’ and ‘after’ joining the movement. Itsines rewards these ‘loyal’ followers with an ever-greater sense of proximity: she reposts their selfies on her personal Instagram feed, indicating that they have sufficiently internalised her system of belief to be able to reproduce it through their own bodies.

Curated Authenticity

The populist leader and online ‘influencer’ know that an authoritative yet engaged style is not enough alone to attract and maintain followership. They must also appear ‘authentic’. Their followers must be able to invest in the belief that their online persona is an extension of who they are in ‘real life’. That they are not bluffing behind closed doors, like the corrupt ‘elites’.

The appearance of authenticity often differs from the thing itself. Many fans find Trump ‘authentic’: his late night tweets and outspokenness help them to believe that ‘what you see is what you get’. Trump has company: populists are often rude, the unfiltered style making them seem genuine. Yet Trump has honed his art of public self-representation over a long career on television. His ‘authenticity’ is curated.

An easy way to appear authentic is through consistency. Nigel Farage, former leader (2006 — 2009, 2010 — 2016) of the UK Independence Party, mastered this art. Recent research found his communications style to remain ‘stable to the point of statistical significance’ during two televised debates over Britain’s EU membership before the 2014 European parliamentary elections. As Michael Bossetta determined, this cogency may have reinforced an image of ‘perceived authenticity.’

Almost every online influencer practices consistency, offering a stable presence in an uncertain world. This dependability is visible in content and aesthetics. As one ‘influencer agent’ describes ‘Many have a signature style to their posts, using specific filters or a trademark pose’. Nikkie de Jager, a make-up artist with over 7 million Instagram followers, goes for ‘glow’. Zoella, a fashion blogger, channels ‘cute’. Consistency breeds familiarity, encouraging attachment through the security of the known.

Accessibility

Itsines seems ‘herself’ in her Instagram selfies at home in leggings. Yet she and her team meticulously choreograph her online presence. ‘“If all I post is photos of myself eating dragon fruit acai bowls in Glenelg, South Australia”, she openly admits, ‘“women from New York or another place where dragon fruit isn’t readily available will be like, “I can’t get that here, I can’t relate, and I don’t want to follow her.”’ Itsines thus caters to her audience, posting photographs of widely replicable scenes to curate a self-image that appears attainable.

Populists engage demotic language to the same end. They also silence biographical details that hint at a technocratic disposition, which may distance them from ‘the people’. Trump does not mention attending Wharton. The Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007 — 15) and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (most recently 2008 — 11) often quietened their ‘expertise’ as trained lawyers, aware that any whiff of elite training could damage their respective brands (all three, incidentally, are millionaires).

Some politicians who eschew populist policymaking have curated an online appearance that emphasises a sense of accessibility and genuineness. Justin Trudeau, the soigné liberal Canadian prime minister, boasts an Instagram account consistently filled with scenes of him hard at play with Canada’s youngest citizens. A father of three young children, Trudeau’s evident joy in hanging out with kids and his faith that they represent the national future is credible. This image may reflect his true beliefs and sentiments. Yet Trudeau and his communications team do an excellent job of highlighting this accessible, emotive and enticing facet of his identity. Trudeau exemplifies how leaders whose policies are not populist can nonetheless engage facets associated with populist stylistics to spur popularity. This usage makes the style all the more pervasive.

Followers, intentionally or otherwise, also contribute to constructing the accessible and consistent image of their favourite ‘stars’. For Itsines, it is the online visibility of bodily transformation among her followers, who converge towards a common physical goal. For politicians, it is the visible ‘tiny acts of political participation’ — sharing, liking, endorsing — that many online users perform on their behalf. The cult of the individual is produced by the many. And on social media, bots can ‘like’, circulate and generate content too. Humans and machines together bolster a monumentalising image of the leader or influencer.

Purity

Populists premise their legitimacy on the presence of dangerous external forces, an ‘Other’ that threatens the integrity of the body politic. The presence of this Other shores up their authority; they not only inveigh against its dangerous influence but also position themselves as the most able authority to protect against it. Their leadership, they suggest, is requisite to preserving the apparent purity of the community.

To be sure, most (but not all) social media influencers avoid preaching messages of exclusion. Yet, the shape of anti-pluralism, upon which populism depends, is often mirrored to a less pernicious degree in online influencer communities. The BBG community is based upon inclusivity (women everywhere), not plurality (to be in the community, you have to get with the programme). In the wellness sector, social media influencers sharpen their identities through defining themselves against ‘enemies’, rallying against dairy, gluten and refined sugar. These ‘toxic’ ingredients must be kept at bay because they threaten the purity not of the body politic, but of the body. Like the anti-pluralism of populism, these messages are not new but their reach is amplified through the affordances of social media.

Learning to See

When a style becomes pervasive across political and social worlds, its dazzle risks blinding us to its hold. Yet alertness is important. The pervasive and cultish stylistic tendencies shared by populists and some online influencers alike foment a form of veneration that threatens plurality. Across sectors, on screens and offline, its preferred forms of participation are narrowly repetitive: the chant, the retweet, the replicated body.

Awareness of the production of this style may help allay its absolute grasp. Training certain ‘muscles’ — visual and textual analysis, psychological insight, ‘digital literacy’ — may help to raise consciousness. These skills are needed to differentiate ‘authenticity’ from appearance, participation from its simulacra: to resist the urge to view the emperor as clothed when he is not.