As some posters have learned the hard way, online show and tell is both a blessing and a curse. Social media is a place where showcasing glamour can captivate interest and boost popularity... or result in high-profile gaffes—as Louise Linton, the wife of Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, learned the hard way last week.

Linton went viral Monday after posting a photo of her and Mnuchin de-boarding a government jet to Instagram with the caption, “Great #daytrip to #Kentucky! #nicest #people #beautiful #countryside #rolandmouret pants #tomford sunnies, #hermesscarf #valentinorockstudheels #valentino #usa.”

While Linton billed the event as a #daytrip, Mnuchin was actually in Louisville, Kentucky discussing tax reform with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Linton's post might have flown under the radar were it not for a woman named Jennifer Miller, who called her out, writing "Glad we could pay for your little getaway. #deplorable,” prompting Linton to unleash a long response containing a barrage of what many perceived as condescending statements and comments, complete with corresponding emojis. 

Linton's post was quickly vilified as portraying the Scottish actress going “full Marie Antoinette,” a character she played in an episode of CSI.  Linton's lengthy response to Miller also sparked outrage because it was viewed as punching down, poor-shaming, and in poor taste. 

Yet Linton´s mistake shines a spotlight on a genre of online boasting that goes on all of the time under the radar: Insta-bragging.

Warning to Internet Brand Ambassadors Living Large: Live and Learn

Insta-bragging is a contemporary phenomenon.  Tagging exotic locales, famous people, or as in this case, expensive fashion designers, is inappropriate in the eyes of many who cannot afford such luxury. Linton is viewed as a repeat offender, having been accused of boasting about her wealth before, including publicly showcasing details about the diamonds she wore during her flashy June wedding to the Treasury Secretary.[i] 

When it comes to celebrity Insta-bragging, however, Linton is not alone in the limelight—which may explain why she did not calculate the negative impact of her original post. Many celebrities showcase the glitzy highlights of their lives on Instagram—collecting thousands of “likes” from followers who love to live vicariously.  Like Linton's, many of these posts focus on fashion, allowing celebrities to walk the virtual red carpet, showcasing the latest designer trends in a cyber version of “who wore it better.”

Linton's reply to Miller appears to have sparked more outrage than her initial post, as many viewed her tone and content, particularly when she made a financial comparison ("I'm pretty sure we paid more taxes toward our day 'trip' than you did,") as inappropriately highlighting class distinction.  

One arguable mitigating factor for Linton might be impulsivity. An Instagram post, even with accompanying fashion designer tagging, does not require much thought or time to compose.  This is particularly true when the poster routinely creates such content. (It's arguably also an aggravating factor, making the composer a repeat offender).  

And regarding the question of whether Insta-braggers boost sales for products they showcase, if Linton's post boosted sales for Hermes or Valentino—who has publicly explained they did not provide Linton with any compensation or merchandise,[ii] such profit is likely to be short lived, because Linton's days as a virtual fashion brand ambassador are likely over. 

Yet because others will no doubt continue the online parade of fashion photographs it is important to note that Insta-bragging is associated with personal issues as well.

Virtual Vanity in Online Show and Tell: The Role of Narcissism

Research by Moon et al. (2016) indicates there is an element of narcissism to Insta-bragging.[iii]  In a study entitled “The Role of Narcissism in Self-Promotion on Instagram,” they found that people with a higher degree of narcissism posted selfies and self-presented photos and updated their profile picture more often than their less narcissistic counterparts. They also found that those with higher degrees of narcissism spent more time on the site. 

An additional finding, which should perhaps be no surprise in a society focused on physical appearance, was that study participants who were higher in narcissism were pleased with their postings, tending to view their Instagram profile pictures as more physically attractive than others.

Counteracting Instagram Envy: Showcase Love, Not Luxury

Louise Linton has apologized.  In a statement released by her publicist, she said: "I apologize for my post on social media yesterday as well as my response. It was inappropriate and highly insensitive." 

Given her straightforward expression of “I´m sorry” rather than “My bad” or “I'm sorry you were offended,” history shows that we will forgive her.  And many others have likely vicariously learned from her experience. 

Linton, along with other posters of less prominence who have been Insta-bragging for years, might now think twice about posting photographs accompanied by boastful brand-tagging.  The good news, however, is that any damage inflicted can be minimized, perhaps even overcome.

Anyone who has engaged in vanity posting that they worry might have put off viewers can restore goodwill through showcasing altruistic actions—which speak louder than words.  Linton and others who have generated Instagram envy can use the same platform to demonstrate, perhaps through posting about humanitarian or philanthropic behavior, that they understand and embrace the value of humility and service, and the worth of citizens of all social and economic brackets.  In the end, we are likely to gain more followers than foes through showcasing a life of love, not luxury. 

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert.  She is the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). 

She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. 

Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD

References

[i] http://www.townandcountrymag.com/the-scene/weddings/a9933935/louise-linton-wedding-jewelry/

[ii] https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2017/08/louise-linton-instagram-apology

[iii] Jang Ho Moon, Eunji Lee, Jung-Ah Lee, Tae Rang Choi, Yongjun Sung, “The Role of Narcissism in Self-Promotion on Instagram,” Personality and Individual Differences 101, 2016, 22–25.

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