Critiquing influencer culture

Seven months in, 2020 has proven a hard year for influencers. The coronavirus pandemic that swept across the world saw many millionaire YouTubers and Instagrammers struggling to make ends meet[1], as advertising contracts were cut and lockdown measures limited content production. The industry was also the target of criticism in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests across the world, after many social media stars failed to voice their support for anti-racist demonstrations and were observed using the protests as a photo opportunity[2]

Finally, controversy erupted in the Muslim community last month after another prominent hijabi influencer announced that she had decided to remove her hijab.

Such events warrant a now well-worn series of responses: the news that a famous Muslim woman has removed her hijab is first met with anger and abuse from followers, and increasingly “reaction videos” from fellow YouTubers. Many Muslim women then take understandable offense to the way in which a fellow sister is being treated for what they claim is a private decision. A discussion then begins on whether the hijab constitutes a private or public action, whether it is fair to attribute “role model” status to fashion bloggers, and if public concern is understandable given the hijab businesses many influencers profit from. 

Yet, in the never-ending cycle of unanswerable questions surrounding individual YouTubers and their decisions, there seems to be little engagement with the Islamic validity of the concept of “influencers” as a whole. A discourse often biased towards female influencers, the fact remains that men as well as women — including Islamic figures — are consuming and creating social media content, often generating vast incomes from such work. With 40% of millennials believing that their favourite creators understand them more than their friends[3], influencer culture warrants an interrogation in light of Islamic ethics.

‘Amusing ourselves to death’

In 1985, on the cusp of the technological revolution, Neil Postman predicted that society would face its greatest threat not from an Orwellian-style invasive government, but through a mass preoccupation with mind-numbing entertainment. 

Today, the meteoric rise of Snapchat, TikTok, and fleetingly House Party amongst ‘Generation Z’ is a testament to Postman’s vision. The immense popularity of apps specifically designed to capture a viewer’s attention for only a few seconds is changing the social media scene and simultaneously human nature, deliberately crafted to be addictive and rewiring key brain functions. Consequently, hours are wasted scrolling through feeds in which lives, likes (and lies) are displayed for all to see.

Whilst some Muslim lifestyle influencers attempt to use their platform to spread more beneficial content, most have conformed to entertainment production. From daily vlogs and challenges to skits and Q&As, the majority of output is little more than celebrity culture repackaged. Even those that attempt to deal with Muslim-specific issues often resort to the language of the industry; “exposed” and “reaction videos” generate buzz and gossip, as opposed to genuine exploration of issues in the Muslim community. The use of crude language or inappropriate jokes has become common place, even by figures who claim to engage in dawah work.

Additionally, as many social media formats are built for entertainment, they are often not appropriate mediums to convey religious or educational information, leading to important issues being diluted in an effort to stay engaging. Just as television cannot replace reading a book, social media content cannot effectively translate the work of academics, lawyers or teachers into bite-sized social media snaps.

Interestingly, the notion of living a life of amusement is something specifically addressed by the Qur’an:

“Know that the life of this world is but amusement and diversion and adornment and boasting to one another and competition in increase of wealth and children – like the example of a rain whose [resulting] plant growth pleases the tillers; then it dries and you see it turned yellow; then it becomes [scattered] debris. And in the Hereafter is severe punishment and forgiveness from Allah and approval. And what is the worldly life except the enjoyment of delusion.” Qur’an (57:20)

While a Muslim cannot be solely engaged in constant worship, she should be wary of useless diversions that distract her from seeking closeness to God. Constant entertainment consumption is one of the foremost challenges we face in developing a meaningful spiritual relationship with Allah ﷻ. Additionally Islam does not need to be a source of entertainment for people; the line between engaging and useful content, and clickbait, uninformative gossip needs to be recognised.

Neo-materialism

A cornerstone of the influencer industry is its unholy marriage to consumerism. With most influencers generating revenue through some form of advertising, the endless search for sponsorship has prompted a constant stream of information on consumer products. 

“Hauls” and “unboxings” feature everything from designer clothing and Apple technology to IKEA furniture, with influencers admittedly striving to present their lives as rightly balanced between aspirational and relatable. Free meals at restaurants and sponsored luxury holidays are sold as a dream just out of reach, inspiring the never-ending pursuit for material wealth. 

Whilst advertising and third party access to data has come to be recognised as the defining feature of social media, what is less acknowledged is this complete incorporation of children as young as 10 into the structures of neoliberal corporate capitalism.

For the Muslim, such norms stand completely counter to the core message of the Islamic creed, which urges the repression of materialistic instincts with spirituality. There is constant encouragement for Muslims to emotionally detach from the dunya in pursuit of zuhd (asceticism), such that the delights of this world are only ever held in hand, not in heart.

But there is another angle with which to consider this. A quote attributed to Ali ibn Abi Talib, may Allah be pleased with him, states:

Do not speak about your money in front of a poor person. Do not speak about your health in front of a sick person. Do not speak about your power in front of a weak person. Do not speak about your happiness in front of a sad person. Do not speak about your freedom in front of a prisoner. Do not speak about your children in front of an infertile person. Do not speak about your mother and father in front of an orphan. Because their wounds cannot bear more.

Today, internet and WiFi services are more accessible than basic amenities. Roofs in India are dotted with satellites, even as they lack toilets and essential plumbing. In many sub-Saharan African states, phones are cheaper than basic medical treatment. Even in the West, families struggling to make ends meet still manage to secure internet access. Access to technology does not put their lives on par with those who constantly display their lives for all to see. This exposure heightens feelings of inadequacy and jealousy, and has resulted in endemic mental health issues among young people. 

Many up-and-coming influencers come from less than privileged backgrounds. They, too, are victims of a system in which success can only be achieved through self-commodification and selling their lives to the public, trapped in an interminable search for the contentment they seek to portray.

An image obsession

In taking their place as public figures, influencers are largely forced to shed their privacy. For most social media stars, featuring their friends, partners and even children in their posts has become the norm. Confession stories and personal Q&As cover everything from dating to health struggles. 

Yet the goal of creating a picture-perfect image of one’s life has resulted in the erosion of privacy. This is particularly concerning in the case of young children, but can also be damaging to influencers themselves. Whilst hearing people’s experiences or struggles can be reassuring to those going through similar situations, sharing light-hearted relationship stories or their daily routines creates a false bond between the viewer and the viewed. This relationship is one-sided; yet, by putting oneself so wholly into the public sphere, it creates entitlement amongst viewers to comment on decisions taken by influencers.

Additionally, the pressure to keep up appearances can result in numerous mental health issues. In the case of female influencers, for whom make-up and fashion are often cornerstones of their appeal, insecurity and depression are part and parcel of life behind the screen. Even so, countless young men also suffer from a lack of confidence resulting from social media and the unattainability it portrays.

An Islamic understanding of modesty, or hayaa, encompasses notions of privacy and concealment. This includes what one shares of their personal life, which in turn restricts the ability of others to interrogate their decisions or judge them harshly.  

Indeed hayaa’ (modesty) and iman (faith) are companions. When one of them is lifted, the other leaves as well.[4]

Internalising hayaa is also a guard against pride. Constantly conscious of one’s actions and comportment in front of Allah ﷻ, one cannot be anything but grateful for their blessings and achievements. Abdullah ibn Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, reported:

The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “While a man was trailing his robe out of vanity, he was suddenly swallowed up and he will be buried in the earth until the Day of Resurrection[5].

The perils of fame

Influencers are the socialites of the 21stcentury. Yet, they no longer need a wealthy family or reality TV show to gain a following; with videos amassing hundreds of thousands of views and likes, social media fame can catapult a person into the spotlight and open doors to further opportunities. That said, the proliferation of content means securing such a position is not easy. Competition in the YouTube game is intense, requiring just the right balance of thrilling and relatable content, as well as — of course — a favourable algorithm. 

Although many social media stars start with a desire to produce what they see as useful content, the competitiveness of the industry means that fame, and self-branding in particular, become fundamental to success. One of Morocco’s most famous Instagram influencers, although having engaged in substantial humanitarian work, recently acknowledged that she enjoys “being seen as an idol” by fans. 

Again, this can be perilious for the Muslim; Ka‘ab ibn Malik (ra) reported that the Messenger of Allah  ﷺ said: 

Two hungry wolves sent against a flock of sheep cannot cause more damage to them than a man’s eagerness for wealth and prominence causes to his religious commitment.[6]

Seeking the pleasure of people is one of the foremost spiritual diseases the Muslim is warned against. Our niyyah (intention) is fundamental to the acceptance of our every action, as established in the famous hadith:

Actions are judged by their intentions.[7]

Unquestionably granting individuals fame can lead to other problems, including the abuse of power.  Recent accusations of sexual assault levied against a qari (Qur’an reciter) who found fame on social media have highlighted the problem with elevating seemingly religious individuals as paragons of Islamic behaviour based on social media posts. Excessive praise showered upon Muslims who do good work grants them impunity and excessive influence in the long run. In the absence of measures to effectively hold such influencers to account, authority and legitimacy cannot be collectively granted to anyone based on their social media following.

Preparing the next generation

There is no denying that influencer culture is here to stay. With technology’s role in our lives only entrenched, if possible, even further by the coronavirus pandemic, it is set to remain the dominant means of interaction with the outside world. In this context, many have suggested that Muslim influencers are needed so that Muslim youth can at least watch content that is more relatable to their life experiences.

Whilst this may be true, imitating the current influencer framework brings a host of contradictions to our spiritual and material aspirations as advocated by Islam. The Muslim community needs role models, but uncritically adopting influencers as a strategy poses numerous problems. In particular, platforms geared towards producing entertainment may not be the best vehicle to impart detailed knowledge, particularly religious knowledge and spirituality. A technology that revolves around instant gratification and automatic fulfilment cannot grant the results that are only attained through patience, commitment and hard work.

The influencer lifestyle must also be critiqued for the sake of the younger generation; the majority of British children want to become a YouTuber or vlogger, replacing former childhood ambitions of being a doctor or teacher [8]. Young Muslims who want to make a difference should not think that their only route is via social media fame. The long term pursuit of sacred and secular knowledge by the next generation is fundamental to addressing problems faced by Muslims across the globe.

In addition to showcasing different routes for change and self-fulfilment, we must remember the Islamic injunction that fame and influence should not be sought. A role in the public sphere, especially for those seeking to represent Islam and the Muslim community, is to be undertaken with the guidance of mentors and teachers who will aid their efforts, help them navigate the dangers of this path, and be a source of continued personal and spiritual development.


[1]BBC News – Coronavirus – influencers glossy lifestyles lose their shine

[2]New Statesment – The Influencers using anti-racist protests for clout

[3] Think with Google – Why YouTube stars are more influential than celebrities

[4]Al Adab Al Mufrad, Bukhari, Hadith 1313

[5]Sahih Bukhari 5453

[6]Sunan Tirmidhi 2376

[7]Sahih Bukhari 54

[8]The Sun – Children turn backs on traditional careers in favour of internet fame, study finds

4 thoughts on “Critiquing influencer culture

  1. Jazaakumulaahu Khayran for this wonderful article! It is exactly why I had to deactivate my FB account. It is just too much to be honest. It’s unnatural and unhealthy to have constant access to “information,” especially in video form; all types of useless information–right, wrong, correct, fact or fiction mainly for entertainment reasons. It’s very mind-numbing. It’s no surprise people’s attention levels has plummeted so much that they are not willing to wait to watch videos/ books longer than a few minutes long. May Allah protect our minds.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As salamu alaikum and hallo from Germany. MashAllah great article. I wrote something similar after removeing from social media accounts like facebook, instagram … Here in Germany it is the same: all kids want to become a You Tube influencer because they want to be famous – not to be an important person with important massages.

    Like

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