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“Social media is sentient neoliberalism”: Symeon Brown on the exploitative influencer economy

In his debut book, Brown exposes the dark side of influencing, tracking gruesome body horror stories and underpaid garment workers in a climate of “laissez-faire individualism”.

By Sarah Manavis

We know that history is always written by its winners – and, in 2022, history is being written in real time by social media influencers. Be it Molly-Mae Hague, the Slumflower or Kim Kardashian, these glamorous figures post day and night about how they hustled hard and gamed the system to attain a lucrative lifestyle. The narrative that dominates tabloids, magazines and books about influencers says that these highly visible, verified quasi-celebrities achieved enormous success through persistence and graft. But for an unregulated industry built on monetising every aspect of people’s lives and needing to do everything it can to keep audiences’ increasingly fleeting attention, can this be the whole story? How has an exploitative business come to be viewed solely through its seemingly benign top 1 per cent?

Get Rich Or Lie Trying, the debut book from the Channel 4 reporter Symeon Brown, which came out on 3 March, is the first serious attempt to expose the hidden darker side of the economy of influencing. Speaking over Zoom from his office in London, Brown explained that he was largely uninterested in covering “blue tick” influencers. “If you really want to understand how a thing works, you should look at history’s losers,” he said. These include a black livestreamer who charges viewers a fee to racially abuse him, garment workers suffering from influencing’s expansion of fast fashion, and victims of multi-level marketing (MLM) schemes and get-rich-quick scams.

One of the book’s most compelling sections follows the women selling cheap and dangerous cosmetic surgery for sham companies in Turkey in exchange for free Brazilian butt lifts and face filler. These stories can be gruesome: Brown speaks to women who have had their nipples fall off after surgery, have pus and rotten fat leaking from their pores, and were even thought to be medically dead before being revived on the operating table.

“I wanted to connect some of the human stories and human conditions in this industry, particularly from people who were at the sharp end, with some of the ideas that have been in the ether post-Thatcher, post-Reagan and post-Blair,” Brown told me. “These ideas that you have to be successful, where luxury feels like it is so attainable and accessible, and that, if you don’t have success, that’s a character flaw – and where social media steps in.” His interest in influencing began when he saw his London school friends suddenly posting claims that they ran successful hedge funds despite their struggles in education, before he discovered they were really just doing social media marketing for dubious companies and betting sites. 

“That’s where I really began to see there was a whole influencer ecosystem that was a lot bigger than people think it is,” he said, and it is “expounding a lot of ideas and rules that are actually super exploitative.”

As well as the losers, Get Rich also spends much of its time on the corporations profiting from this economy: Big Tech and the giants of fast fashion, as well as the fake businesses, MLM masterminds and dropshipping scammers, who in some cases have made millions. “Capital is the biggest winner out of these spaces, and fundamentally these platforms are capital-intensive,” he said.

“Part of why there is such an interest in things like Inventing Anna, The Tinder Swindler, and stories like Fyre Festival… is that to a certain extent, there’s a sense that this is just what success in this system looks like,” Brown said. “If it’s unfair, then the rules are unfair, and you have to do what you can with them, by any means necessary.” 

Get Rich uncovers some truly shocking stories, such as Facebook employees taking bribes to keep scam content live. But Brown always considers the broader political and economic landscape in which social media and influencing have thrived. “I wanted to critique our economic consensus and the values that are part of that economic consensus,” Brown told me, “and how those things have evolved and brought us to this moment in time by which social media becomes essentially sentient, laissez-fair individualism – sentient neoliberalism.”

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Some of the most engaging passages in this fundamentally political work are about influencers who have created a following off the back of movements such as women’s rights or Black Lives Matter (BLM). “Influencers masquerading as activists have hijacked progressive social movements, distorted their truths for their own financial gain, and even engaged in outright fabrication,” Brown writes in Get Rich. “These influencers have managed to divorce activism from collective action and turned it into self-serving individual branding. Their end goal is not social change that benefits others, but a cheque, and if possible, a cult-like following they can also cash in on.”

Brown said to me that he had never read a significant critique of BLM influencing. “In itself, it is obviously an important movement for highlighting very real injustice,” he explained. “But at the same time, you could see people trying to monetise outrage, very directly. You would see a Twitter thread about some issue and then at the end, the person would say: ‘OK, here’s my Cash App.’ There was a very clear profit motive.” He sought to include influencer activists in Get Rich because of their effect on real-life political structures. “I really wanted to look at the relationships that influencers have with social movements,” Brown added, and explore how platforms “undermine the ability to really build coalition… even for people that are genuine activists, who really want to see social change.”

Brown argues that platforms always seek to elevate the individual over the collective, which “is not conducive to coalition-building”. He pointed out that social media sites do not tend to even incentivise the accurate reporting of facts. “People will actively misrepresent an event to appeal to the biases of their audience, because of the profit motive.”

This truth, he said, is at the heart of why the industry is so hard to regulate. Media organisations have long considered questions of how to appeal to a wide audience, he noted. “But what happens when millions of individuals do the same thing? You can regulate the promises made on TV or in newspapers somewhat, but you can’t regulate millions and millions of people – it’s just too big.”

Brown believes we are only witnessing the early stages of what the influencer economy will become. “People believe that this space is going to burst, but generally speaking, most of our consumption is still done offline,“ he said. “The digital migration that we’ve been doing for 30 or 40 years is actually accelerating. We haven’t even begun to make sense of how it is changing our behaviour. If anything, it’s more of the future than it is the present.” 

Brown was keen to emphasise that the influencer industry is the way it is by design. “This is just a grammar of these platforms,” he said. “Whenever you read about the history of Instagram, they consciously moved from calling people ‘friends’ to ‘followers’, trying to effectively engineer this new economy.”

“Influencing is not an El Dorado, even though a lot of people would like to present it that way,” he said at the end of our call. “If you follow Molly-Mae, she says we’ve all got the same 24 hours in a day. I’m just like: well, let’s see.”

[See also: Why we’re obsessed with catfish scams]

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