ITHACA, N. Y. — Navigating the world of social media can feel like a mine field at times, and no one is under a larger magnifying glass than influencers. These popular users with tens of thousands of followers make a living using their profiles to endorse clothing companies, makeup brands, and any number of other products willing to pay for a shout out. For influencers, social media isn’t just a hobby or way to stoke their ego, it’s how they pay their bills.
For most of us, that probably sounds like a pretty easy way to earn a buck, but a new study conducted at Cornell University is illustrating just how trying it can be from a psychological perspective to try and please everyone online. Researchers focused specifically on female influencers using Instagram, and discovered that these women are constantly being criticized and harassed for either being “too real” or “too fake” in their pictures and profiles.
Researchers have dubbed this dilemma an “authenticity bind,” in which female influencers are essentially faced with a no-win situation. When they share personal details and un-enhanced images they leave themselves open to abuse and accusations that they’ve embellished details in order to elicit more likes and comments. On the other hand, if they are more reserved and post more typical, enhanced images to Instagram, they are accused of simply being fake and un-relatable.
“People are compelled to be authentic and ‘real’ but in ways that are really narrowly defined,” says Brooke Erin Duffy, associate professor of communication and co-author of the study, in a release. “If they’re too real, if they show too much of their inner thoughts or they express too much, they fear criticism. But if they aren’t real enough, if they’re highly curated and very performative, or idealized and aspirational, they fear blowback. So, a woman on social media, especially with a large following, essentially can’t win.”
Researchers interviewed 25 female Instagram influencers for the study, and found that every single woman routinely censored herself in anticipation of criticism. This is a clear sign that all of that harassment and negativity is extracting a mental toll.
The interviewed influencers told Duffy that they noticed their followers were more engaged with their content when they shared personal or private information about their lives. But, they also said they are usually reluctant to share anything that isn’t at least somewhat positive. For example, posting about a recent fight with a husband or boyfriend without some type of happy ending or moral to the story would likely result in backlash about being too negative.
Unfortunately, harassment and negativity on Instagram is an incredibly common occurrence, especially regarding accounts with large followings. Moreover, abuse is more prevalent among female users.
All of this makes it even more concerning that Instagram lacks any real policies or rules intended to protect harassment victims. This, combined with the fact that many of these women are depending on their Instagram accounts as their main source of income, renders many influencers helpless to the situation, according to the research team.
“There’s a pretty vibrant community of people who are spending hours upon hours policing and critiquing the activities of content creators – and in ways which are highly gendered,” Duffy elaborates. “Did they use Photoshop, did they hire child care, are they doing this just for the cameras? And unlike high-profile people who have teams of managers to help them navigate networked hate and harassment, these are ordinary individuals who all of a sudden find themselves being scrutinized for every single thing they do.”
“You haven’t really made it till you’ve been hated on.” says one Instagram influencer who was interviewed for the study.
According to Duffy and her team, this toxic environment on Instagram that seems to punish women for succeeding isn’t all that different from what successful women encounter across a variety of fields. Prominent female journalists, politicians, and academics are commonly subject to unfair criticism and higher standards than their male counterparts.
Moving forward, the study’s authors say they hope their findings shine a light on the lack of regulations and safeguards protecting Instagram’s female influencers.
“They’re dismissed as frivolous; they’re not taken seriously,” Duffy concludes. “Recognizing the very uneven ways people experience online visibility is important, but this study is also a call to take seriously the complete lack of both regulation and recourse that people have in social media spaces.”
The study is published in the International Journal of Communication.