Written evidence submitted by Dr Terence McSweeney



Dr Terence McSweeney, Solent University - Written Evidence - Submitted 3rd May 2021

Summary: Social Media Influencers

1. The rise of social media influencers in the last two decades has been the subject of a growing amount of interest within the UK and beyond. As public awareness increases social media is coming under greater levels of scrutiny.  Given these factors and the profoundly influential nature of this phenomenon it is only correct that the government conducts further research into some potential problems and benefits associated with it. This brief written evidence will highlight just a few of the ways it has had an impact on society and raise some questions about the shifting coordinates of digital technology in the first decades of the new millennium.


2. My specialism lies in the study of global and transnational cultures, politics and media. As an academic, researcher and creative practitioner my work has taken me all over the world. I am currently a Senior Lecturer at Solent University, but I have held research posts at Oxford University, UCL and the University of Southern Denmark. My research is taught in universities across the globe and regularly cited inside and outside of the realms of higher education. My 2019 film won Best Short Documentary at the Respect Human Rights Film Festival, Belfast. I welcome the opportunity to play some small role in the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee (DCMS) inquiry with this written evidence.

Definitions and Global Reach: 21st Century Phenomenon?

3. Considering that for many members of the public the concept of social media influencers may be a new one, we should begin with a definition of the term. Catalina Goanta and Sofia Ranchordás in the introduction to their The Regulation of Social Media Influencers (2020) define them as the growing number of individuals, often without any traditional professional qualification, [that] have a job which consists of sharing moments of their daily lives, offering advice in different areas (e.g., fitness, beauty, food), and while doing so, endorsing consumer goods and services.[1] In this brief definition already a number of issues are highlighted: the “growing” nature of the phenomenon is connected to the expanding use of social media by users around the world, the fact that these individuals are providing advice often on matters pertaining to physical and mental health even though they may have no “traditional professional qualification” and the fact that they are overwhelmingly tied to the promotion and sales of goods and products in a diverse range of industries.

4. While the utilisation of new media technologies inherent in the term social media influencers makes this particular iteration of the phenomenon of individuals using their social capital to influence others a recent one, it has antecedents reaching back to the eighteenth century. However, it was in the twentieth century that companies began to use famous people more widely to promote their goods through the use of first the radio and then television. The invention of the internet has made this process a truly consequential one with ethical and social ramifications as modern digital technologies make it global, cheap, virtually instantaneous, and one with, until now, only relatively limited forms of regulation.

5. As Catalina Goanta and Sofia Ranchordás observe social media influencers are primarily connected to advertising and consumerism in the cultural imaginary, but in the last few years the phenomenon has broadened to encompass the political arena, human rights, charitable causes etc. While the term is not usually attributed to individuals with even higher profile careers in entertainment or politics, given the pervasive impact of social media in the last decade a wide range of celebrities have used their very public positions to make pronouncements on a wide range of topics. With this in mind should we regard professional wrestler turned actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson a social media influencer? On Sunday 27th September 2020 he posted on Instagram (where he has more than 230 million followers) and Twitter (more than 15 million followers) his endorsement of Joseph Biden in the 2020 election. Johnson informed his followers that Biden and his vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris were the best choice to lead our country’. Or Australian actor Hugh Jackman who posted pictures of himself being vaccinated for COVID-19 on Instagram along with the message ‘Wolverine’s healing ability can’t save me from Covid. But the vaccine can. Get it!These are two examples out of thousands of celebrities who post every day on a wide range of topics with the aim of influencing their followers in different ways.


6. In this way the UK government should acknowledge and conduct further research into the prominent role digital media now plays in the lives of its citizens, not just within youth culture but for more members of society than ever before. As Alejandra Grus and Farida Vis argue social media can change the world.[2] The author of this written evidence suggests the topic should be taken more seriously than it has been and these responses should be ones which place an emphasis on scrutiny, public awareness, education, dialogue and ultimately legislation.


14. There are a variety of factors that will impact upon the number and significance of social media influencers moving further into the twenty-first century. In her book Influence: How Social Media Influencers are Shaping Our Digital Future (2021) Sara McCorquodale argues that not only is the phenomenon here to stay but that what we are witnessing is only the very start of it. She writes that its growth will be hard to predict but that even events like the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK had an impact on their rise, with people confined to their homes many turned to digital media for entertainment, escape, and advice, with social media influencers providing an ambiguous blending of the three. She writes that as a result of the lockdown “A whole new generation of stars are born in a single 12-week period.”[3] For these reasons and many others it is a topic worthy of further investigation by individuals, organisations and UK society as a whole.

[1] Catalina Goanta and Sofia Ranchordas (eds.), “Introduction”, The Regulation of Social Media Influencers, London: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2020. p. 1.

[2] Alejandra Grus and Farida Vis, 6 ways social media is changing the world, World Economic Forum (7 April 2016): https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/04/6-ways-social-media-is-changing-the-world/ [accessed 21 December 2019]

[3] Sara McCorquodale, Influence: How Social Media Influencers are Shaping Our Digital Future, London: Bloomsbury Business, London, 2021. p. 1.