When Kris Schatzel turned up at a Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles, she didn’t think much of it. A white, full-time model and influencer, she was there, in her words, to “spread the message” of the George Floyd demonstrations by taking pictures for her 240K Instagram followers. Schatzel’s photographer took a picture of her, wearing a black maxi dress and holding a placard, in front of hundreds of protesters. It felt like an ordinary part of her day – until someone decided to film it.
Within hours of leaving the LA protest, Schatzel’s actions were a viral story: a tone-deaf influencer opportunistically using the death of a black man for online clout. Different clips of her photo opportunity circulated. The videos, showing Schatzel posing and then walking away from the protest after getting a picture, have accrued tens of millions of views cumulatively across Twitter and Instagram. (She did not reply to request for comment.) But while Schatzel’s choices and subsequent infamy may seem particularly extreme, they are a part of a growing trend of white Instagrammers using Black Lives Matter protests as a backdrop. These people are, in a parallell trend, increasingly being filmed or photographed by those who dislike their actions.
Influencers In The Wild (IITW) is one of the main aggregators of this content. With 173K Twitter followers and more than three million on Instagram, the account posts embarrassing videos of people in public trying to get heavily staged shots to, presumably, post on their social media profiles. It is run by George Resch, known by his monikers “Tank Sinatra” and “Meme Daddy”, who has made a career out of running meme accounts. Resch has become so famous he even landed a recent guest spot on Ellen. Resch is also known for his podcast, The Think Tank, and for controversially taking payment from the ex-New York City mayor and former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg to post pro-Bloomberg memes on some of his pages.
While IITW had been, for the most part, exactly what it’s name described (posting clips of influencers in public), two weeks ago things began to change. Resch began to receive fan submissions of white influencers standing in front of looted stores, posing with protesters and pretending to march. Some even pretended to help rebuild destroyed shops. Others gleefully jumped in front of a camera, trying to capture a photo mid-air with police and military vehicles in the background. Many were wearing heavily styled clothes obviously unsuitable for actual protesting.
I knew this would happen eventually pic.twitter.com/V3bB92iaPB
— influencersinthewild (@influencersitw) June 1, 2020
Most of the influencers caught photographing these empty gestures have, like Schatzel, since been outed. Viewers of these videos on IITW and elsewhere have found out who these influencers are, their locations, and in some cases their day jobs and addresses. Although not every single case has gone as viral as Schatzel’s, and nor has every single influencer’s identity been revealed, many of the most prominent cases have led to the influencer in question shutting down or locking their Instagram page – or many, their main source of income. Under each new post from IITW are fans commenting “what’s her @?”, desperate to find out who the influencers are so that they can “ruin her career”.
Some may feel justified in cancelling these social media stars, but many are far from famous. One post from IITW featured an influencer with fewer than five thousand followers (who has since locked her account); another featured not an influencer, but a journalist working for the right-wing American newspaper the Washington Examiner who is known for posting anti-Black Lives Matter content.
Alongside valid criticism has come swathes of abuse. Under the influencers’ own Instagrams, videos posted to Twitter and clips on the IITW Instagram page are hundreds of abusive comments including, death threats (Schatzel has posted a number of graphic messages she’s received since she was filmed in LA).
“My life does matter,” she wrote in one post. “No one should be threatened in this manner for taking a picture at a non-violent protest.”
“I am scared,” she wrote in another. “Hundreds of people are threatening to kill me.”
Realising the extreme backlash to the clips posted on his Instagram, Resch posted a video statement on Tuesday afternoon addressing the fan response to the IITW page.
“I started this page as a goof… I never started it with a mean spirit or with the intent to shame these people,” he said. “Over this past week, some people have co-opted the BLM movement in order to get content and I think the problem with that, the thing that enrages people so much, is that it’s the single most egregious act of cultural appropriation you could possibly imagine. Going to a march that was literally organised so that black people could assert to matter, to live, and repurposing your presence there for Instagram content which is, as we know, one of the most shallow things we can do.”
“I [started] to see people looking for their Instagram handles or where they worked,” he said. “In one case I saw somebody post someone’s full name, phone number and address… searching for someone’s information to dox them and possibly put them in real physical danger. That is not why I started this page. I am not in the life-ruining business… My purpose was to expose behaviour, not the individual.”
Two weeks on from George Floyd’s death, the momentum of protests has not shown signs of slowing. And, equally, this handful of influencer cancellations have not deterred other Instagrammers from getting their own woke-friendly content. Proliferating under hashtags and geolocations are a daily-increasing number of professional content creators getting heavily stylised pictures at protests to use for social media.
Almost a week on from photographing her own content, Schatzel is still receiving near-hourly death threats, posting screenshots on her main page and Instagram Stories.
“This page is only six months old,” Resch said of IITW, at the end of his video statement. “I’m trying to figure it out as I go along.”