We’ve all seen the made-up faces pouting in front of infinity pools in the last two months. Social media influencers have migrated in their hundreds to exclusive resorts – Cancun, Dubai, the Greek Islands – in order to carry on with their ‘essential work.’ Whether we are remotely interested in their lives, or mere voyeurs of a surreal phenomenon, we are constantly bombarded with gratuitous photos from 20th floor apartment buildings headed by captions such as “todays office.” But why, amid a national lockdown and an unprecedented second wave of Covid-19, do they get away with it?
On 4th January 2021, a third national lockdown was confirmed by the UK government following an outbreak of a new and far more transmittable Covid variant. It clearly outlined an end to all overseas travel as people were legally obliged to stay at home. Yet, while many social media ‘personalities’ and influencers travelled to these locations while their local areas where still in a period of flexibility – the Tier system introduced by the PM in October 2020 permitted those in Tier 1 and 2 to travel overseas – the increasingly stringent lockdown rules that were unveiled over the coming months did not seem to deter them.
As more and more sought refuge in a haven of unlimited sambuca and artificial sand, the government was forced to implement a travel ban. On the 29th January the UK’s Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, made the announcement that they were “extending the travel ban with the United Arab Emirates added to the UK’s red list.” While many holidaymakers rushed home to avoid the compulsory 10-day quarantine, many chose to stay effectively stranded in Dubai and continued their documentation of the trip.
Yet, while the public backlash was widespread, for those for whom this content is the norm, influencers were greeted with either indifference or support. This poses the question of privilege, and of the ever-changing role of social-media in our national consciousness.
Can we justify a blatant disregard for national unity in the face of one of the greatest crises of the 21st century?
The image of an influencer is maintained by opulence and luxury. Their objective has never been relatability; instead, they function as a means of escapism for the British public whose movement has been severely restricted. Being able to live vicariously through the false lens of social media has been what attracts such large audiences in the first place. In subscribing to such content, we make a conscious decision to suspend our understanding of reality and indulge in an alternate one where the horrors of Covid cease to exist. Influencers are so detached from our normal lives that they become mere images on our screen as we robotically scroll through our phones. For this reason, they often avoid accountability.
This is reflected in the continued popularity of travel content; the vlogs of Love Island runner-up Molly Mae have been some of her most successful videos ever. Her vlog from Dubai in December garnered 1.2 million views.
Yet perhaps this statistic reflects the ‘essential’ nature of her work. The commercial success of the influencer relies wholly on public traction, views and engagement from subscribers. With access to such large swathes of society, they are among the most influential lifestyle, fashion, gaming and technology personalities in the world. Thus, partnerships with brands through affiliate marketing, display advertising and sponsored posts provide an opportunity to earn a comfortable living. While seemingly frivolous, for the social media generation it is far more than just a hobby, and without the appealing and escapist content viewers expect, they are in danger of losing out on valuable income. Whether you agree with their lifestyle or not, the influencer marketing industry is one of the strongest forces in the social media world; in 2020 it was worth an estimated £10 billion, up from £700 million in 2016 while 65% of influencer marketing budgets have been increased in 2020.
Despite the arguably ‘essential’ nature of their work – oversees travel was permitted for work reasons under tier 4-it is undeniable that wealth provides a shield for those who can afford it; there is always an option to escape. Socialite Petra Ecclestone has travelled to 7 different countries to try and ‘miss’ the pandemic. In her own defence she claimed, “I feel like if people had the opportunity, they’d go on holiday too.”
Our sense of entitlement can often be a reflection of our means, capital and a public platform often creating a bubble of privilege thereby immunising people from the consequences of their actions. For influencers and celebrities, the rules have never fully applied, and in this pandemic, it is no different.