Alessandra Costagliola, PhD researcher at University of Westminster’s Communication and Media Research Institute, looks at the way that some governments are using social media influencers in an attempt to improve their global image.
In the digital era, engaging in the online economy has proven lucrative for influencers and corporations alike. Some influencers, whose social media platforms are leveraged for their large follower count and engaging audience, can earn over £1000 for a single sponsored post, and one of the industries utilizing this marketing tactic is the tourism industry. As noted by researchers Femenia-Serra and Gretzel, influencer marketing is used by the tourism industry in order to attract other tourists and shape perceptions of the tourist destination. While influencer marketing has been utilized by the tourism industry and governments for generally travel-friendly locations like Indonesia and South Africa, in recent years, more problematic governments including Saudi Arabia and North Korea have sought to leverage influencer marketing in an effort to soften their appearance on the world stage.
Recent literature on the topic of social media as highlighted the role of social platforms in manifesting what scholar Guy Debord coined as the ‘spectacle’ in his 1967 seminal work, The Society of the Spectacle. The spectacle is understood as a “social relation between people that is mediated by images”. This term is often conflated to mean the media alone, but for Debord, the spectacle expands beyond just the role of media and imagery. Rather, Debord saw the spectacle as “capitalism’s instrument for distracting and pacifying the masses”. Indeed, the media is used as an instrument for this distraction and manifests through the use of advertising, film, news, and in the digital era, social media. In the digital era, the spectacle has come to “colonize…everyday life”, as noted by Kellner in The Spectacle 2.0, collapsing politics into the realm of entertainment. This expansion of the domain of the spectacle has effectively blurred the lines between entertainment, news, and politics.
In this updated society of the spectacle, as researchers Briziarelli and Armano have noted, social media has come to embody the “commodification of life” where “personal life becomes entertainment for others to consume and actively use as a basis for production of value”. Indeed, the emergence of influencer culture has perpetuated this notion, effectively commodifying everyday life to be consumed by gazing spectators all over the internet. Over the last several years, influencers who have amassed thousands and sometimes even millions of followers and corporations alike have learned to maximize the internet gaze, partnering on brand deals to drive consumption, not only of the media imagery posted by the influencer, but also of the commodities they sell.
In the tourism industry, governments have begun to leverage influencer marketing to improve their global image and advanced themselves as a soft power. The term ‘soft power’ is a term coined by Joseph Nye in the 1980’s, and describes the ability for a country to persuade or coerce others without the use of force. Countries like Japan and South Korea have demonstrated a huge success over the past several decades in advancing their own soft power through popular culture in the use of film, art, and music. The strategy of advancing soft power in these countries has proven successful in improving their image across the globe, manifested in the global spread of television media like anime from Japan and Korean pop music (K-Pop). Digital social platforms including Twitter and Instagram have amplified this spread even further (Korean pop music group, BTS, have generated an astonishing 33.5 million posts under the hashtag #btsarmy on Instagram).
However, the success of leveraging popular culture and media to improve country image by the likes of Japan and South Korea are now being practiced by countries with seemingly less worldwide support, including Saudi Arabia and North Korea. In 2019, a series of American influencers came under fire after promoting tourism in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The social media and Hollywood stars, which included household names like Victoria’s Secret model Alessandra Ambrosio and actor Wilmer Valderama, were met with criticism for promoting tourism in the country. Such promotion appears to overlook the Saudi government’s human rights abuses including the murder of journalist Jamal Koshoggi in October 2018 and ongoing imprisonment of women’s rights activists including Loujain al-Hathloul, who was only recently released in February after nearly three years of imprisonment.
Similarly, North Korea, widely known for the country’s ruthless dictator, Kim Jong-Un, whose regime censors its citizens from the outside world, put 33 year-old British YouTuber, Louis Cole in hot water following a series of videos he posted while traveling in the closed-off country. Although Cole defended his videos by stating his desire to focus on the “positive things” in the country, he has been widely criticized for perpetuating propaganda.
Although the use of social media influencers to advance soft power for these authoritarian regimes has not yet proven successful, it does call into question how the spectacle of soft power may continue to advance itself within the realms of the digital space. Indeed, the use of influencer marketing to advance soft power is demonstrative of the spectacle’s blurred lines between entertainment, news, and politics. Influencers’ lives already manifest a highlight reel of everyday spectacle, so their embeddedness with political soft power cultivates a spectacle that masks the reality of brutal regimes, in an attempt to focus on the “positive things” that ‘distract and pacify the masses’.
This article gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.