“It just sounds really weird,” I say to Cliona, 25, from Belfast. We’re speaking on the phone about a recent trip she’s just taken.
“It’s so weird, I know,” she says. “I mean I’ve done it now, and I’m still like, what the fuck was that?”
Cliona has just returned from a two-week tour across the United States. She went to Washington, DC, Los Angeles, New Mexico and Indiana. She met with staff from high-profile organisations, government officials, and visited celebrity-studded sites. She visited expensive film sets and studios, often just doing whatever the hell she wanted, and she didn’t pay for a single thing.
Why did Cliona go on this trip? Because she’s a social media influencer. And who funded the entire thing? The United States government.
AD – Been exploring the US over the last week and a bit with this lovely lot. What. A. Trip. The US Government has sent us to Washington DC, Indianapolis, New Mexico (we arrived in Albuquerque yesterday!) then moving onto LA. This 2 week trip is to learn about US culture, meet with different people/organisations and explore American values. Loving it so far and can’t wait to see what Albuquerque and LA have to offer @usa_in_uk #usa #vex19 #eav19 #visitindiana #indiana #indianapolis #fishers #visitusa #visitamerica #instatravel #worsttagsever #ad
Cliona’s trip was the third of its kind, and is part of a relatively new programme organised by the US embassy in the UK. The programme, “Exploring American Values”, takes a varied group of social media influencers, working across beauty, travel, politics, and fashion, and allows them to explore the United States through the lens of pop culture phenomena. Run through an organisation called Cultural Vistas, the programme takes the social media stars to locations across America, which are all themed around topical issues and trends that are popular during that particular year. This soft-power “influencer diplomacy” aims to promote American values through Britain’s social media stars.
“We’re offering an exciting opportunity for young social media influencers from across the UK to apply to take part in an exchange to learn more about important issues shaping American culture as portrayed in popular US television shows,” reads the description. Its website explains how influencers on this year’s programme would learn about American culture through the cities where certain cult television shows are set: DC (The West Wing), Indiana (Parks and Recreation), Alburqerque (Breaking Bad), as well as LA, for a look at the entertainment industry in general.
Andrew Veveiros, the programme’s creator, has worked for the American State Department in Uruguay, Nicaragua, and Indonesia, and has spent the last few years in the UK. He said the programme was born out of interviews the embassy conducted with sixth formers across the UK.
“We asked the students every time we went, what do they like about the US, what gives them hope, what inspires them,” he tells me. “But also what frustrates them, what confuses them, and what concerns they have.”
The embassy put together a word cloud of the most common phrases mentioned in these sessions. “On the positive side, there were things like ‘American Dream’, ‘opportunities’, ‘education’, ‘Nasa’,” he says. “On the negative side, there was one four-letter word that really stood out, which was ‘guns’. Plus ‘police brutality’, ‘racism’, ‘healthcare issues’.”
“So we decided to take this data and make a trip out of it, exposing British social media influencers and content creators to America; you know, the good, the bad, the ugly. We wanted to open up America for British young people to get behind the headlines that they were reading in the newspaper.”
The programme began in 2017, and the alumni includes Scottish YouTuber Shaun Alexander as well as Northern Irish journalist Lyra McKee, who was killed in April while observing riots in Londonderry. They visited a sweeping range of groups, organisations, and sites from the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida – the site of an LGBT-targeted mass shooting – to the National Rifle Association (the NRA), America’s biggest pro-gun lobbying group.
Many of the people selected previously have been high-profile social media stars in the traditional sense: they typically have tens of thousands of followers; colourful, consistent content; and social media is their main occupation. However, many of those who made it onto the programme this year have only a few thousand followers on a single platform, and create content based on more serious topics like politics, mental health, and activism.
Cliona is one such person. Her main platform is Twitter where she has just under 5,000 followers and became an “influencer” after writing a piece about her experience with depression a few years ago that went “a little viral”. Since then she’s used her platform to post about politics and mental health, as well as bad Tinder dates.
“You know, I don’t have like tons of followers,” she tells me about how she made a case for herself to the US embassy. “But the kind of people that follow me are people that will expect to read those sort of things. So the audience will be quite engaged.”
While in the US, Cliona had her own special schedule, tailored to the type of content she produces. Andrew tells me that each of the influencers get their own meetings in each city they visit, based on their particular niche. This gives them the opportunity to dig deeper into their own brand and share with their followers something they would be more receptive to.
“It allows them to see for themselves what the United States is; what we value, how we operate, and hopefully in the future it will allow them to be, if you will, ambassadors for the United States,” Andrew tells me. “They’re reaching a demographic that doesn’t have the same kind of memories of the United States that older generations have. They’re creating content that has touched on multiple themes. Heavy stuff, light stuff, they’re kind of authentically displaying without filters, their pictures, their videos, their impressions, often in real time, of the United States.”
Abby is another influencer who participated in the 2019 programme. Now 21, she rose to fame at 17 after inadvertently creating a social media campaign to get Ed Miliband elected prime minister, more commonly known as the “Milifandom”. After BuzzFeed wrote a story about her, she ended up in the Guardian, on the BBC, and even in Miliband’s campaign. On her main platform Twitter today, she has nearly 40,000 followers.
“The idea of doing it through the prism of TV shows really interested me,” she tells me. “I love Parks and Rec so much. But also the idea of going to the states that I will probably never go to, like New Mexico and Indiana… I’ve been to New York, and I’ve been to Florida, but these other places I’m never gonna get the chance to go again.”
The trip to Indiana overwhelmingly stood out to the programme attendees, particular because of how surprising it was. On a visit to a rural farm, the influencers expected to meet hard-right, Trump-supporting Republicans.
“The man was like 70,” Cliona tells me, “and one of the first things he said was, ‘So what’s happening was Brexit? That’s a mess, isn’t it? Almost as bad as our politics here!’”
Another part of the Indiana trip that only Abby and a few other political influencers went on was a dinner at the Indiana state treasurer’s house.
“We had dinner with her assistant and her assistant’s husband and it was basically to talk about American values,” Abby tells me. “We talked about politics for like three hours essentially, and they were all massive Republicans… gun control, abortion, like, it all came out.”
“But it was really interesting actually, because there was no like hostility. And none of them actually wanted to admit that they liked Trump. I didn’t meet anyone the whole time I was in America that said that they liked him.”
Along with Abby and Cliona, many lifestyle Instagrammers and YouTubers went on the trip, including London-based Ehis Ilozobhie (30,000 YouTube subscribers), Scottish vlogger Erin Doogan (also known as Beauty Creep, 60,000 YouTube subscribers), and beauty blogger Amy Astrid (6,000 YouTube subscribers).
For many of the influencers, the trip is a fun, free vacation across America. But does the American embassy actually gain anything from this influencer diplomacy?
“We know that we can’t send 20,000 sixth-formers to the United States,” Andrew says, “But what we can do is maximise [the impact of] the 27, 30 [influencers] that we do send through their followers. And hopefully, these trips are memorialised that way, and we’ve noticed that they have been.” He tells me of the ways that past alumni of the programme have marked their content, pointing specifically to Shaun Alexander who is currently creating a multi-part YouTube series debunking gun-ownership and immigration myths and stereotypes in the United States.
Cliona, who spent her childhood visiting America, tells me that, before the trip, she had begun to lose her love for the increasingly conservative country.
“America used to be a place people wanted to go,” she says, “ But now if you tell people you’re going to America, they’re like ‘What are you going there for?’ or like you’d said you were going to Russia or Iran. It became this sort of crazy place.”
But she tells me that this programme has helped her regain hope that the America she grew up knowing could return to how it once was. “I loved the programme,” she says. “I know that’s not a particularly helpful answer, but I loved it. And it definitely gave me back a little bit of the love I had for America that I had lost.”