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Social media influencers: are they a double-edged sword?

Saturday June 05 2021
Influencer pic
By Epiphania Kimaro

Technology is often an amplifier. It can amplify the good and bring societal change, but it can also amplify the bad and damage the fabric that holds society together. The Internet and what come with it - including social media - are among the new technologies that greatly shape society today. Social media is a highly potent tool, and has given one and all a platform to voice their opinions and connect with each other across the world seamlessly. But this seamless connection comes with other issues, such as cyberbullying, which can harm not only individuals but also businesses, especially small businesses.

Technology has become so ubiquitous to appoint where new vocabularies have been coined, such as ‘netizens’, ‘netpreneurs’, etc. A netizen is a user of the Internet, especially a habitual or keen one, while a ‘netpreneur’ is a person who delivers their product or service via the Internet. Netizens are a big target market for ‘netpreneurs’, and influencers can damage or enhance this relationship. Influencers have large audiences on their social media pages, and can use their platform to promote various choices and opinions about products, brands and services. However, since influencers are usually liked, followed, and looked up to by millions of netizens, they must know that their role is similar to that of leadership - it comes with responsibilities, and cannot be mixed with intentional sabotaging of individuals or businesses. But of course, in this age of schadenfreude and scepticism, it is easier said than done. Nonetheless, influencers do not have the liberty to say whatever they want to say online without considering that they are liable to the community in one way or the other.

To add to the weight influencers actions can have, social media companies have introduced the idea of ‘verified accounts’, showing that a particular account is operated by a real person and his identification documents have been verified by the social media company. This is done in efforts to increase the quality of online content, where a tick symbol is put on the profile. The fact that people perceive content from a verified account as “credible” or “important”, it should make influencers interrogate their content even more before sharing it.

Of course, public feedback for a service or product, whether positive or negative, can be given by any internet user, not only influencers. The difference is that with influencers, the impact can be bigger and significantly detrimental if the targeted business is a small business. But then the question is why would someone use their influencer role to sabotage another person’s business? Well, asking this question may be as futile as asking why do thieves thieve, or people tell lies. Indeed, issues of values and ethics, which drive people’s conduct, are deep and complex.

Perhaps a more fruitful avenue to explore is understanding that technology is just a tool that came to our disposal, and what we get from it depends on how we use it.

That understanding also comes with the need to understand how to handle and when possible control the negative effects of technology such as cyberbullying or negative publicity. In fact, it is cyberbullying if an influencer uses their personal indifferences to spread negative publicity about a business or a person.

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The reason why some people suffer from online bullying is due to lack of proper regulatory instruments to protect them. Again, that is because the online world, although with us for more than two decades now, hasn’t yet been comprehensively regulated. We learn as we go, and governments make rules and regulations as cases happen. But, in the meantime, everyone can decide to use their online and offline platforms, regardless of the size of audience, to support and criticize constructively, rather than sabotage and propagate unfounded negative publicity about others.

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Ms Kimaro writes about careers, leadership, personal development, and issues affecting youth and women