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Flattening Influence

Flattening Influence:

What can we learn from Donald Trump?

What do you do when social media becomes a platform for gloating, hate speech and an environment for the ‘influencer’? The power of social media is an often trumpeted asset of these, our digital times. During his election campaign and beyond, President Trump has been very vocal, often using multiple platforms to accuse, abuse and then to duck and cover from his political opponents and other critics.

To a certain extent, this is the golden age of connectivity and the networked citizen. What, then, can we learn from Trump’s approach to Twitter and the rest of social media? It is hard to register whether Trump feels differently regarding the scrutiny and review of his tweets. Reading his content, one of the things we have learned is Trump is bold, and clearly enjoys being able to hold a visible position on social media.

Like other influencers, Trump publishes with hyperactive frequency, moulding his content to the moment.

Though much of Trump’s content invites ridicule, disbelief and parody, which has (so far) successfully lifted him up out of reality television notoriety to the leader of the free world, we can also admire the rate with which he extends his voice (his influence) to his digital profile.

The observations about a growing era of ‘influencers’ are grounded in the ways that consumers have long-term experience of the consumption and attention to reputation and trustworthiness. As part of a larger research project, my #richkidsofinstagram study seeks to explore visible signs of elitism such as wealth and social class on social media. Here are fundamental methods to enhance individuality, represent degrees of sociality and influence the digital audience. The interest in the trappings of social media influence is based on three dimensions. First as a means to explore how digital images are a discrete form of self-construction. Second, the broader practices of being influential and elitist. Third as a way to set out the conditions of connectivity along with the expectations of reciprocity. This is familiar to consumer behaviour, as modelled on the intensity of consumer desire and by seeking fulfilment through compulsive consumption.

Following Trump’s social media content, his audience cannot take the opportunity to look the bragger in the eye. This aspect accounts for the sway of reactionary posts to Trump where Followers state they are justified in feeling got at, manipulated against or just plain fed up. There’s a lack of explanation to Trump’s method of engagement; gone is the etiquette of truth that can be trusted and hello the truth of one individual as he sees it. One might state that Trump is directly straight talking, but another interpretation is the uncomfortable (at best) realisation this president cares more about being brand Trump.

Research analysing social media influencers establishes a significant disconnect between what individuals learn about online and the ability to decode the impact of such content.

Trump is a good example. Never before has a president played such a visible role – or put such personal effort into achieving broad influence with his audience. Yet, for all that’s been written about Trump, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, he is influencing us. We live in an era increasingly at risk of inaccurate reporting – the fake news, fear and supposed favourable dishonesty. Some of Trump’s Followers may suspect character inflation and corruption, then even an emerging concept of ‘influencer’(whether academic, commercial or cultural) may allow us to navigate inconsistencies, competencies and a commercially constructed character.

In short, the seductive and compulsive nature of the digital landscape easily distracts Followers from important questions about the quality and trustworthiness which networked content produces. Trump has been using Twitter since March 2009, and there has been a gradual, inescapable embedding of self-promotion that has altered not only the presidential candidacy and campaign but has now gone on to affect interrelated activities of his presidential term.

Future impact

Influencers are part of materialist consumer interactions. In this regard, there are four critical points the #richkidsofinstagram study has revealed so far:

1. Digital representations of wealth have immediate and long-term consequences, aligning the individual with clear-cut accounts of consumption. This content is then placed within the contexts of being and becoming, aspiration and achievement.

2. The turn in socio-consumer relations allows us to question the bounded-ness and the separated-ness of the ‘consumer’ and the ‘social’. We can now examine the conditions of consumption and view the consumer as a self-exploratory object for long-term analysis.

3. The #richkidsofinstagram contributes to the complexity of sociality and materiality. In this way, selfies challenge the static and physical state of materialism and are a crucial component to understanding the associations, relations and connections of each consumer activity.

4. Finally posts tagged as #richkidsofinstagram are animated by continuous offerings as to what it is to be and not to be perceived as ‘rich’. Due to these activities persisting, such as heightened exposure, we are unwillingly involved with the moral valuation of actions. The intensity with which audiences are acutely aware of sources of entertainment and individuals who hold ‘influence’, suggests the digital world is entering a renewed period of heightened reflection, exposure, openness and negotiation of uneven permeable boundaries. The significance of influencers’ existence has created habitual engagement, with its potential effect all the more important

This article was originally pulished in IMPACT magazine in January 2019

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