- Lifestyle and wellness influencers often present themselves as authentic, accessible, and outside the system.
- Anti-vaccine influencers may align themselves with mothers and maternal intuition.
- Influencers often do not bother to refute medical facts.
In spite of the fact that many people in the West think of themselves as religious or spiritual, large numbers of the institutions and moral frameworks that dictated how people ought to live have vanished. We are now living in a post-secular society, where large numbers of people feel lost, suffering what Anthony Giddens calls ontological insecurity.
The frequently degrading nature of modern industrial work, the growth of totalitarianism, the threat of environmental destruction, climate change, the alarming development of military power and weaponry, the polarization of the political discourse, and the ever-increasing reliance on automation with its consequent loss of job opportunities for unskilled workers have become sources of great anxiety for vast numbers of people. And now we have a new threat: AI. According to research by Goldman Sachs, AI tools threaten 300 million full-time workers in major economies.
Polarization, skepticism, doubt, and division have led to an erosion of trust in institutions, the media, science, and government. This low institutional trust is likely to increasingly become an issue, especially as disinformation floods the world as a result of AI.
This wave of fear stoked by many in the media rides the new breed of lifestyle and wellness influencers.
Lifestyle and Wellness Influencers
Lifestyle and wellness influencers have gained followings of millions. How can individuals with no expertise and no medical training achieve a high degree of trust and loyalty from so many followers? One way is through their stress on being authentic. This adjective is really important. Because in describing themselves in this way, what they're actually doing is distinguishing themselves from, say, a manufactured Hollywood celebrity, indicating that they're more real, more genuine. And as a byproduct, you can trust them more. Right?
Now by achieving fame on social media as well, they also seem much more accessible than, say, a mainstream celebrity who is surrounded by managers, agents, and assistants. Followers are given the impression that if they write a message on social media to the influencer, they will read it and respond. Fat chance.
And the third aspect, which is really important to an influencer, is to present themselves as being outside the system. Not beholden to anyone. An independent person just like you. Not one of the “elites.”
Along with that goes the assertion of being self-made, of being ordinary and just like you, and again, this is important because it establishes a degree of intimacy. We know that we're much more likely to trust people who we perceive to be just like us.
Stephanie Baker, senior lecturer in sociology at City, University of London, has written widely on the subject of influencers, particularly as they discourage vaccinations. She identified three very common strategies they would use to target mothers and encourage them not to vaccinate their children.
The first one was the assumption that a mother's role in life was to protect her child first and foremost. I have no problem with that. However, it was very much in the context of the anti-vaccination movement and these influencers framed it as a type of maternal duty.
Next was the idea that we must trust a mother's intuition, that a mother's intuition is always right. This could be dangerous because we know that many mothers are not just vaccine-hesitant but also nervous about drugs, vaccines, or any medication that they'll give to their children.
And the third one that Baker identified was the notion of the doting mother. A mother who is playful, caring, and loving. And again, really knowing what's best for her child.
Reading these posts, you couldn't even identify, upon first glance, that they were anti-vaccine posts. Often it would be an influencer, who was actually an anti-vaccine advocate, posing with their child. And it would just look like a generic mother or daughter picture on a play date or celebrating a birthday. And it wasn't unless you looked in the hashtags that you would see acronyms for anti-vaccine causes.
Many influencers use handwritten letters purported to be written by mothers who had lost children to vaccine injury and regretted it. And they would be expressing not only the importance of not vaccinating their children, but it would be framed very much through this lens of regret.
“I trusted the doctors, I vaccinated my child, now she is sick or dead, and I regret it. And if only I can impart this knowledge on to you, so you don't make the same mistake.” That's obviously very compelling for people.
Letters like that are very moving and poignant, but very difficult to verify. Even if authentic, we don’t really know what happened to the child, whereas a medical paper in a medical journal needs to be backed up by legitimate studies and can be critiqued and replicated.
The increasing inequality that exists in our society is a huge cause of anxiety and anger, especially when people feel disenfranchised. Lifestyle and wellness influencers present themselves as authentic, accessible, and outside the system. Anti-vaccine influencers may emphasize that it is a mother’s duty to protect the welfare of her child, and the best way to accomplish that is to avoid vaccination.
Keep in mind that many of the influencers are actually selling us something. And so, being an influencer is often very profitable. They are not like their followers.
Influencers do not bother to refute medical facts, rather they feed into people's worries and insecurities—or "intuitions," as they frame it—to build a sense of trust and galvanize the anti-vaccination movement. As a result of the anti-vaccine lobby, there is a very real possibility that diseases eradicated in the past, like polio, German measles, and mumps, could return.
Trust is the glue that not only binds individuals together, but binds a society together. Unfortunately, it is in low supply at the moment.
Baker, S. A. (2022). Alt. Health Influencers: how wellness culture and web culture have been weaponised to promote conspiracy theories and far-right extremism during the COVID-19 pandemic. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 25(1), 3-24.
Baker, S. A. (2022). Wellness Culture: How the Wellness Movement has been used to Empower, Profit and Misinform. Emerald Publishing Group.
Baker, S. A. & Maddox, A. (2022). From COVID-19 Treatment to Miracle Cure: The Role of Influencers and Public Figures in Amplifying the Hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin Conspiracy Theories during the Pandemic. M/C Journal, 25(1).
Baker, S. A. & Walsh, M. J. (2022). ‘A mother’s intuition: it’s real and we have to believe in it’: how the maternal is used to promote vaccine refusal on Instagram. Information, Communication & Society, 1-18.
Crockett, C. (2015). Post‐Secularism, Secular Theology, and the Names of the Real. Dialog, 54(4), 317-326.
Giddens, Anthony (1990). The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford University Press.
Habermas, Jürgen (2008). "Notes on Post-Secular Society". New Perspectives Quarterly. 25 (4): 17–29.
Toh, Michelle (2023). 300 million jobs could be affected by latest wave of AI, says Goldman Sachs. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2023/03/29/tech/chatgpt-ai-automation-jobs-impact-i…
Walsh, M. J., Baker, S. A. & Wade, M. (2022). Evaluating the elevation of authoritative health content online during the COVID-19 pandemic. Online Information Review.