• Perri Grace

Disinformation Dispatch: Influencers for Hire

The Red Line's Perri Grace takes us through how public figures and online personalities have become propaganda amplifiers.


Disinformation has adapted throughout history to its environment, for it is that very environment that either successfully adopts a narrative or fails to capture an audience. With the world of social media and users’ growing blind trust in influencers, the disinformation game is shifting with the trends.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a television address announcing the partial mobilisation of Russian troops for Ukraine.
Twitter and Facebook has opened up a new front in Kenyan politics, with candidates in the 2022 elections attempting to draw the attention of the country’s 12 million social media users. Credit: Tony Karumba/AFP

The 2022 Kenyan election saw the use of influencers for hire. With six million new voters and more than half of the estimated 50 million under the age of 30, social media was gearing up to play a significant role and, perhaps, have the last say. In the lead-up to the election, talent agencies were booking their Kenyan influencers for campaigns, giving a ticket to their audiences by broadcasting political campaigns, defending criticism against particular politicians, sharing campaign videos and encouraging followers to engage with specific messaging.


Meanwhile, back in Russia, Roskomnadzor, the federal information technology supervision agency, continues to monitor social media posts and implements the Russian Autonomous Internet Subnetwork practices. Naturally, this has led to many selective blocks of Russia's internet, including the likes and following of political opponents, including Alexei Navalny and Garry Kasparov. On a similar note, Instagram models have been utilising social media to amplify self-claimed evidence of victimisation and persecution due to Russophobia. These claims push an aligned Kremlin message to their audiences that Russians are victims of the West. Elvina Borovkova and Veronika Stepanova are two public figures who are well-known drivers of Kremlin narratives. The influencer market has begun to resemble pro-Putin political commentary.


Some Russian celebrities have jumped to save departing multinational companies. Timati, a pro-Putin rapper, has an extensive music past that correlates to Kremlin narratives and pushes nationalism with songs such as "Best Friend Putin," which dropped ahead of city council elections and contained anti-protesting messages throughout the lyrics. Although the rapper denies allegations of government payment, his family background demonstrates alarmingly close ties with the Russian government and Gazprom. With many companies exiting the Russian market in the fallout of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Timati took over Starbucks, rebranding it as Star Coffee, featuring a new logo bearing a Kokoshnik.

Vladimir Putin posing for a photo with Timati in 2012. Credit: Alexey Druzhinin/AFP
Vladimir Putin posing for a photo with Timati in 2012. Credit: Alexey Druzhinin/AFP

The Smaller, The Better

Some emerging research suggests that ‘micro-influencers’, an individual with a follower count of between 25,000 to 100,000, are prime for pushing political narratives, particularly in western countries, due to the appearance of having more authenticity and relatable personal nature.

"Some emerging research suggests that ‘micro-influencers’, an individual with a follower count of between 25,000 to 100,000, are prime for pushing political narratives... due to the appearance of having more authenticity and relatable personal nature."

The subtle weaponisation of social media has seen public figures modestly express views or link themselves to communities that encourage particular ideas. This can create a slow build-up and transition of their followers into those communities of influence. Big dramatic moves are easily detectable from the outside, but gradual changes over time are harder to identify and therefore are likely to increase.


Have We Fallen Victim?

Of course, many public figures took to social media to express their political views and opinions throughout the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and many US domestic events without a financial agenda. This isn't too out of the ordinary in a hyper-partisan environment. COVID-19 saw online personalities taking to live streams on both sides of the science and influencers pushing followers to have a voice in the 2020 election. Naturally, these figures feel safe to speak about their political views and are using their platforms to share information and opinion on news stories across the world. The issue is that some have often shared incorrect info or promoted a sense of ‘what-about-ism’, frequently motivated by the desire to deflect attention from the primary event.

Ian James Mwai (right), browses social media platforms on his mobile phone with a member of his outfit of social media influencers at an office in Thika town, central Kenya. Credit: AFP

Many influencers also share with their platforms issues and world-current events, which sometimes means the individual needs to check the source and, therefore, fall into a disinformation trap of sharing it with their very own followers. When the war in Ukraine began, some influencers, in good faith, shared images promoting their followers to educate themselves on other airstrikes and events happening worldwide. The source of this image was a Kremlin disinformation ecosystem map created by a Russia Today offshoot with a left-learning appearance tasked with generating a ‘what-about-ism’ reaction.


What is certain is public figures and online personalities are now not just a marketing tool but also a new instrument of propaganda.

 

Written by Perri Grace.

Edited by Wade McCagh.