The comments section of the final image posted to Sophia Cheung’s Instagram account, a photo of her kneeling in a white bikini next to a yellow boogie board, is filled with comments mourning her death.
Cheung, 32, from Hong Kong, is believed to have died after falling off a cliff while hiking with friends on Saturday. It is not known how many followers she had at the time of her death; his account posthumously swelled to over 21,000 and continues to grow.
It’s also unclear whether Cheung, who reportedly died taking a selfie, had any deals with the brand or if any of the content she posted was sponsored. But reports of her death called her an “influencer” for her carefully curated Instagram account. As her Instagram followers posted their disbelief over her death, Twitter users took to the “influencer” label to respond with sarcastic remarks and callous celebrations.
“A new influencer just dropped,” one person joked in response to a tweet on Cheung by the New York Post. The tweet has been liked over 5,700 times.
Comments on Cheung’s death highlight the often toxic attitudes towards influencers, who tend to be female, who are shared in many corners of social media and fueled by mocking accounts like Influencers in the Wild and blogs. like GOMIBLOG, which stands for “Get Off My Internets”, which disconnect content creators from their humanity. Celebrities and their loved ones have long been the subject of criticism that sometimes turns vicious and cruel, but influencers, especially those experiencing tragedy, can be the targets of bullying, harassment and hatred on the internet. As in many other digital industries, this abuse has long been a problem.
“It’s still an area of a career that I don’t think is relatively understood,” Brooke Erin Duffy, associate professor of communications at Cornell University, said of being a social media influencer. “Like any feminized career field, it is considered frivolous and therefore not taken seriously and not valued.”
Harassment of internet personalities and influencers increased during the coronavirus pandemic as more people communicated through digital spaces during the lockdown.
“People call me ugly, big, fake. They say all kinds of horrible things about me and my family and threaten us, and you feel helpless in the face of that because they keep creating new accounts,” Erim Kaur, lifestyle and beauty influencer, said last year.
Experts say there are many reasons influencers are laughed at online and often the targets of cruelty in times of personal tragedy. Some of the key factors are the disconnection that people experience when commenting online, the anonymity of the internet, and a fundamental misunderstanding of content creation and the work that goes into it. But a major component of attitudes towards influencers, Duffy said, is gender hatred directed at women.
While there are a lot of men in the sphere of influence, they tend to be referred to as “content creators,” a term derived from and associated with YouTubers, while women are generally referred to as “influencers. “, a term taken from and adopted by the marketing industry. on platforms like Instagram, Duffy said.
“This ideal of being visible is experienced very differently by women, by people of color, by the LGBTQ community, and women in particular have very different life experiences on the Internet,” she said. “They are judged and scrutinized, and the standards to which they are subject are much higher.”
Duffy said subjects of shameful public accounts like GOMIBLOG and Influencers in the Wild tend to be women. However, she said, her research found that the reviewers, in many cases, also tend to be female.
Along with the sexist harassment suffered by some influencers, experts have raised the notion of ‘undeserved fame’, the idea that these influencers are seen as having no real talent or as making no real contribution to society, so that in reality, they are an arm of the marketing and advertising industry that has capitalized on the digital space.
“These insecure and jealous trolls, who are jealous of fame and undeserved attention and annoyed with that kind of attention, that kind of people existed before, but they haven’t had access to the media of the same way as it is today, “said Scott W. Campbell, chair of the communications and media department at the University of Michigan.
Because the influence is relatively new and poorly understood, there is also general skepticism, which is especially prevalent among older generations, experts said. And there is a general distrust of the authenticity of what influencers post, even when facing tragedy, as so much of their digital presences are organized.
Emily Hund, a researcher at the Center on Digital Culture and Society at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, recalled an example when Instagram influencer Tiffany Mitchell posted photos in 2019 after she was in a motorcycle accident.
The images of Mitchell lying on the side of the road as they tended to look bright and professional, and in one of them a bottle of Smartwater appeared to have been carefully placed as if it was part of a brand agreement. Smartwater confirmed to BuzzFeed News that it does not have a brand deal with Mitchell.
Commentators tore Mitchell apart, saying the crash was staged or part of the trademark deal debunked. Mitchell maintained that the accident was real and that she was aware that photos were taken before the fact.
“The space is so commercialized now that followers are getting more and more cynical,” Hund said.
The fundamental distrust of influencers – the veil of doubt as to the authenticity of the ego they share online – has led some online to rejoice in any misfortune that befalls them, experts have said. Even when, like Cheung, one dies in tragic circumstances.
“It is a strange and unique form of cruelty for a person to feel compelled to comment so cruelly on someone’s death,” Hund said.