LONG READ

The Dark Side of Social Media – The ‘Alternative Influencer’

Janus – Source: Christo Coetzee in Independent.ie

According to Niccolò Machiavelli (who never heard of the internet let alone an alternative influencer):

“Men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, for everyone can see and few can feel. Everyone sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are.

(Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532).

This is a problem because it is a tactic use by those sharks – the con artists on social media – who use the prism of social media, through which information generally flows, to feast upon vulnerable, uniformed users who are unaware of the goings-on in politics. In this article, I will focus on Twitter because it is teeming with an inexhaustible body of small-time recalcitrant influencers.   

The ‘Alternative Influencer’

The point of an influencer is to advertise, manipulate and convince their audience, typically to promote a product or a movement. But the point of an ‘alternative’ influencer is to publicise themselves, to cultivate and hawk crooked philosophies for personal gain while treading the delicate tightrope between fame and notoriety. They are, like the Machiavellians, “sly, deceptive, distrusting, and manipulative”.

An example of a high-profile alternative influencer was Trump’s former Senior Counsellor, Kellyanne Conway. In an NBC ‘Meet the Press’ television interview, Conway supported the blatant falsehood stated by Sean Spicer, Press Secretary, that Trump’s presidential inauguration had “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration”. Conway then tried to legitimise her and Spicer’s description of events by saying their evidence was based on “alternative facts”. It was an egregious attempt to deceive.

Alternative influencers’ display a penchant for deceit, especially within the shelter of their internet chamber, establishing a profile by cynically compiling a platform of followers – ‘I follow you. Then you follow me which increases my popularity ratio. Then I drop you’. By this means, the ‘alternative influencer’ generates a cult personality.

Pile-On’s, Blue Ticks and Group Hugs

Of course, most of the people who follow these micro-celebrities are adding to an account replete with bot farms and trolls. In national and international news outlets, numbers can be misleading, ‘advice’ distorted, and the facts infested with conspiracy, but this all helps to enhance the impact of the of non-mainstream, alt-right and right-wing accounts and adds to the grifter’s axiom of ‘fake it till you make it’.

The Merchants of Menace

Alex Jones’ Texas based Infowars website is well-known for peddling far-right views and conspiracy theories, enjoying roughly 10 million visits a month – larger than some traditional mainstream news websites. The conspiracy theorists indulge in gargantuan myths arguing that 9/11 was orchestrated by the US government and that “no one died” at the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

One of the most malignant tactics used by Twitter’s ‘alternative influencers’ is to encourage a ‘pile-on’. In a pile-on, the influencer appeals to their followers to attack a harmless tweeter, not because the tweeter is obnoxious, but because they demonstrate a conflicting opinion or a different viewpoint. As a consequence, the tweeter is then blocked. The tweeter cannot respond thereafter so this is a very cowardly response. In the meantime, the victim of the pile-on may become subject to a torrent of abuse from the followers.

A ‘Blue tick’ or Blue Verification Badge is the ultimate reward for an influencer. The blue verification badge on Twitter lets people know that an account of public interest is ‘authentic’. To be verified, your account must be notable and active.

There is no greater sign of the image obsession that characterises the ‘alternative influencer’ than the constant updating of their biopics and background pics and their ever-changing bio-descriptions. This constant updating may be fuelled by narcissism. Or it may be used simply to attract new followers who are unfamiliar with the account. Either way, this ‘constant updating’ seems to be by design. The number of obsequious comments congratulating the recipient on receiving their blue-tick award borders on sycophantic which suggests that there are also sock-puppet accounts in play. (A sock puppet account provides Twitter users with an alternative covert online identity for the purpose of duping people.)

Another device used periodically is the soft-spoken address to camera in a bid to ‘play peacemaker’. The tactic here is to offer a seemingly innocuous non-partisan appeal to readers to put aside their disagreements and engage in a kind of ‘kumbaya group hug’. Brexit offers a good illustration: a Twitter user will post a short film encouraging us all to stop being ‘tribal’ – for Remain voters to accept the Leave voters’ victory without complaint. This is a thinly veiled attempt to get people to bury their opinions and forgive and forget that the nation was lied to and hoodwinked.

Sadly, the mechanism by which we restore our international reputation and economic health will probably be painfully slow. But to assume that Remainers will suddenly celebrate an act of national self-harm, is delusional. Another popular provocation used by the alternative influencer is that Remainers are unpatriotic, a charge which inevitably ‘stokes the fires of perdition’.

Alternative Influencers versus Science

An even more dangerous ploy is the derision expressed by alternative influencers towards scientific and medical expertise. This was illustrated recently by disgraceful physical attacks on NHS workers.

Social media increases the ability of ill-intentioned actors [e.g. alternative influencers] to circulate empirically false claims such as the vaccine-autism link.”

(See Kata, ‘Anti-vaccine Activists, 2012.)

An infamous conspiracy theorist was found guilty of serious professional misconduct after claiming that the MMR vaccine caused autism. He was subsequently struck off the medical register by the UK General Medical Council. However, he continues to employ his dark arts in America where he produced the film ‘Vaxxed’.

Professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Ian Lipkin wrote of the film ‘Vaxxed’ that:

As a documentary, it misrepresents what science knows about autism, undermines public confidence in the safety and efficacy of vaccines, and attacks the integrity of legitimate scientists and public-health officials.”

The dissemination on Twitter of disinformation about vaccines with the aim of convincing the unconvinced is clearly an obstacle to science and just prolongs the agony of tight lockdown measures, social distancing and mask-wearing.

Our streets are subject to anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine protest marches such as the ‘Worldwide Rally For Freedom’ in July, 2021. In March this year, Bristol anti-lockdown protestors became violent, clashing with local police.

Ironically, there are often a few mask-wearers on such occasions because, for some, the violence is pre-meditated – there is no intention to remain peaceful. (Mark White on the Bristol violence) The mask is not to protect the perpetrator against Covid, but to protect them from being identified.

Self-described anti-vaxxer Kate Shemirani, who was struck off the Nursing and Midwifery Council in 2020, declared there is “no evidence that I can see that a pandemic exists”, when interviewed on Sky News London Economic. Shemirani has also claimed the pandemic is a “scamdemic” to control the masses and “change people’s DNA” (Sussex Live).

Other attendees at such gatherings include former sports broadcaster and conspiracy theorist David Icke, far-right commentator, Katie Hopkins (sacked from LBC in 2017, sacked from The Sun in 2017, sacked from The Mail Online in 2017 and permanently suspended from Twitter). Hopkins is a regular purveyor of hate speech and alt-right political views.

Others participants include ex-Labour councillor, businessman and conspiracy theorist, Piers Corbyn, who declared the pandemic a “hoax” (Liverpool Echo). Also present on the periphery at such events are groups such as the British Union of Fascists and other far-right groups.

A firm favourite of conspiratorial influencers is the outspoken Swedish epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell MD, MSc, PhD (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine). Like proponents of the Great Barrington Declaration, he advocated letting the virus “rip through” society, which is allowing a contagion to run through an unvaccinated population until enough people have become naturally immune (FP Report). Sweden’s programme miscarried because of its initial herd immunity policy. King Carl XVI Gustaf told the state broadcaster, SVT, in an end-of-year (2020) interview –

 “I think we have failed. We have a large number who have died and that is terrible”.

The evidence against natural herd immunity as a solution to the Covid pandemic is incontrovertible yet this specious approach by Tegnell remains popular with conspiracy theorists.

The ongoing emphasis given by alternative influencers on the mortality (death) rate, while disregarding the morbidity (infection) rate, overlooks the problem that those requiring hospitalisation occupy a finite number of beds and this results in immense strain on the NHS. However, this does not appear to concern the antagonists who continue to defend the lower death rate as the solitary, crucial variable. What we are now seeing in the UK and other countries is an epidemic of the unvaccinated. Many of the Covid patients who are taking up beds in the NHS are unvaccinated, Guardian, November 2021.

As the old adage goes, ‘a lie has gone halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on’. It delivers a toxic power trip for the Machiavellian influencers and confusion to the uninformed. But, as Thomas Huxley said, “Science is simply common sense at its best“. There is no trickery in truth.

A Dangerous and Immoral Game

The influencer’s game is a dangerous one since its aim is to exploit people’s inexperience, sprinkling false claims like confetti and backing these claims up with dubious statistics gleaned from obscure, widely debunked journal papers, all the while becoming chummy with radio station hosts and television presenters some of whom are censored.

For the alternative influencer on Twitter, a re-tweet is not an endorsement of a shared vision but just a thinly veiled gambit. Their re-tweeting of comments of well-known personalities with right-wing sympathies is an attempt to displace responsibility for obnoxious beliefs from themselves onto others – “It’s not me tweeting this. Don’t shoot the messenger”. Some activists have disgracefully marched through the streets wearing the Star of David, an act which points to a most diabolical period of modern history, to echo their grievances, as if they have been held in grotesque captivity. During interviews and speeches, Kate Shemirani has compared lockdown with being in the Nazi death camp Auschwitz London Economic. Absolutely sheer lunacy.

To quote Machiavelli again:

Narcissists have a strong sense of entitlement and a constant need for attention and admiration. They are arrogant and consider themselves to be superior to others.

If he were alive today, Machiavelli would certainly have the measure of these imposters.


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