The headline of last week’s press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of New York issued another setback in the mainstream understanding and acceptance of social media influencers as legitimate publishers and information sources. It read, “Social Media Influencer Charged with Election Interference Stemming from Voter Disinformation Campaign.”
The mainstream media followed suit, completely ignoring the blatant bias in the headline and story, underlining media bias towards influencers. Politico, The Miami Herald, The Hill, and on an on, all copy-pasted the label in their own headlines. The Washington Post had the decency to save its mislabeling and category slander for the lede.
Take away the offensiveness of the headline for a moment and understand the story. You’ll love it. It starts with my favorite line in all of journalism: “A Florida man …”
This particular gem of the Sunshine State, Douglass Mackey, was arrested and charged with federal crimes for using social media platforms in 2016 to suppress voters in the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton election. He allegedly conspired to deprive individuals of their right to vote through what the DoJ called, “coordinated use of social media to spread disinformation.”
The arrest is noteworthy because it is rare for the Federal, or any, government to charge an individual with such a crime based on social media use. It is also significant in 2021 because of the rampant accusations of right-wing groups that the 2020 presidential election was tainted. Even though these charges are from four years ago, they are far more attention-grabbing thanks to the insanity of the last few months in American politics.
According to the complaint, Mackey used at least four Twitter accounts, one with over 50,000 followers, to post incendiary images and instructions for people to avoid the line and vote from home via text message. No such voting mechanism exists. If convicted, Mackey faces up to 10 years in jail.
So what’s my beef with the headline and the media coverage? Mackey’s description as a social media influencer is no more accurate than describing him as a political analyst. Mackey is a jackass with a Twitter account. Putting the label of “social media influencer” along side him just because one or more of his Twitter accounts had a fair number of followers taints the general public’s understanding of what an influencer is.
It’s bad enough the industry has to contend with its own peace sign/duck lips problem children. We don’t need the mainstream media biasing the public to think the country has an “influencer” problem.
In the first pages of my book, Winfluence – Reframing Influencer Marketing to Ignite Your Brand, I underline the mainstream media bias towards influencers. They’re constantly claiming influencers are dead, that influencer marketing is a fad, and rolling their collective eyes at the Instagrammers and YouTubers. It pains me to say this, but the eye rolls should be pointed inward. Most of the Instagrammers and YouTubers they scoff at have more followers than the media company that employs them.
I’m a trained journalist. It’s what I went to school to be. It’s one thing for the PR person for the Department of Justice’s Eastern District of New York to use a perfectly respectable term to label a perfectly non-respectable person. It’s a different violation altogether for journalists to copy-paste and follow that lemming off the cliff.
Here’s a thought: From now on, we start labeling all of them, “alleged” journalists.
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