by Asmahan Qarjouli
The MENA region has witnessed a surge of social media influencers in recent years, working on Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. But controversies surrounding their wealth and impact have recently risen.
Whether it is to promote a product, provide restaurant reviews, or share opinions, social media influencers have taken over a large portion of the online world, developing their own brands and fans. However, it’s not all rainbow-food and flawless selfies.
Al Qabas, a Kuwaiti newspaper, recently reported that ten Kuwait-based social media influencers have been involved in a money laundering scheme. On Monday, the country’s attorney general ordered the immediate seizure of all their assets and issued them with a travel ban.
The list included the prominent Kuwaiti TV presenter Halema Bouland, as well as fashion influencers Fouz Al Fahad and Farah Hadi. The Kuwait-based e-commerce platform Boutiqaat also came under the microscope following months of ongoing investigations by the Kuwait Financial Investigations Unit.
The impact of influencers
While glamorous images posted by influencers flood our Instagram feeds, followers are struggling to live up to their spuriously lavish standards.
“Some don’t want to continue pursuing their studies, then there’s those who complain about their jobs and want to become famous instead,” said Bibi Alabdulmohsen, a Kuwaiti social media influencer on Snapchat in response to the money laundering cases.
Apart from the business aspect of their profession, there is also their ability to share information to a large, loyal audience. According to a study conducted by Northwestern University in Qatar, three in ten nationals look at online posts from social media inﬂuencers at least once a day, that’s more than the proportion of nationals who check their emails.
In the UAE, 43% of the people who took part in a survey said that they get their news from social media influencers, whereas 26% preferred newspapers. In Qatar, 27% said that they go to social media influencers for news versus 39% who prefer newspapers instead.
Information vs misinformation
On one hand, social media influencers have the ability to raise awareness on different issues and support their followers by sharing their stories. But on the other, they are able to widely share opinions on topics out of their expertise.
In response to fears following the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic for example, Fatima Almomen, a prominent social media influencer, told her Snapchat audience to “always drink water” as the virus is “less dangerous” if it reaches the stomach. Of course there is zero medical evidence to back this up.
Earlier this year, social media influencer Ghadeer Sultan posted a video of herself wearing wigs and makeup depicting different skin tones, with the song ‘We Are the World’ playing in the background. She came under a lot of criticism for not understanding the sensitivities around racism and for seemingly trivialising the issue of racial discrimination. In response, she posted an image of herself wearing ‘blackface’ makeup, saying: “I hate racism. What I’ve done is only to show what I am capable of.”
Here in Qatar, social media influencer Abdullah Al Ghafri shared his opinion on the looting of stores in America during Black Lives Matter protests. He tweeted:
“Don’t tell me they’re out asking for [George’s] justice ..Yes #BLACK_LIVES_MATTER, but Innocent people properties & businesses matters too. Don’t be mad when cops go hard on this kind of people.”
He was criticised for not understanding the centuries worth of history behind the civil rights movement and the endemic and institutionalised racism within the US. Despite the criticism Abdullah refused to apologise and added that social media was created for freedom of expression.
But where do we draw the line between censorship and freedom of expression when it comes to social media influencers? Should social media influencers with large followings operate in a similar way to traditional news organisations, which are subject to media laws and editorial standards?
“I think there has to be a set of guidelines or a standard that needs to be established, but it can’t be the same standard as news. That’s not fair. They’re not professional journalists… as somebody who is going online to get your news from social media influencers, you have to take some responsibility yourself,” says Mohamad Elmasry, Associate Professor in the Media and Cultural Studies Program at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.
While some believe that regulations are necessary, others believe heavy regulation measures can cause rigidity.
Ilhem Allagui is Associate Professor in Residence at Northwestern University Qatar’s Journalism & Strategic Communication Department. She says:
“We need to have an association that brings different stakeholders around the table, including governments, including influencers, including brands, marketers, including people from traditional media. Maybe even including some members of the audience that they sit together and they come up with codes of conducts to protect all parties involved.”
Although there are no clear guidelines or regulations for social media influencers, and while the public has the power to call them out on their actions, many believe there needs to be a level of personal responsibility for their content.
“I think the pro for me is that we have found a way to give voice to people who wouldn’t otherwise have had a platform and who aren’t, at least at the start, they’re not big, rich, powerful, famous people. We have a natural bias in our modern societies, we tend to privilege the voices of the powerful,” adds Mohamad Elmasry.
There’s no doubt that social media influencers wield a great deal of power and influence, but as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. The question many are asking is how will we ensure that these influencers live up to that responsibility and who will hold them accountable if they don’t?