Are the influencers you follow not activist enough? Then become one

It is unfair to expect social media stars to have an opinion about everything

From left: Jumana Khan, Sarah Milad and Ziba Gulley, UAE influencers who dominate TikTok in the Gulf. Instagram
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When Israeli forces bombed a building housing international media outlets in Gaza earlier this month, we took notice because we need news, and it is these organisations – and others like them – that deliver it to us.

Besides news agencies, there are 'citizen journalists' who keep us informed. Thanks to social media and smartphones, there are plenty of citizen journalists, activists, influencers and celebrities on any platform.

This last month has brought up a debate: should influencers take a stand with regard to the news?

The violence in Palestine and Israel and the horrors Gazans faced over those 11 day led to marches across the world and also in part changed public opinion. But these events have also shed light on the relationship between influencers – including those whose platforms have little to do with current affairs or journalism – and their followers. Many influencers faced criticism, even abuse, from followers for not expressing their opinion about the conflict. Some were labelled "fakes", "sell-outs" and "puppets". Others were called "spineless", who were "in it only for the money".

I can understand people getting angry and frustrated while watching the live coverage of the unfolding tragedy in Gaza. Our instinct is to redress the injustice, the indignity and the oppression of innocent civilians, including children. But in the process, some people misdirected their anger at influencers, for not wielding their influence by saying something.

But how fair is it for us to expect even those influencers who have made a name by baking cakes, providing beauty tutorials and starring in soap operas, to give us their take on the news? Should they have to be involved in activism and discuss politics? Just because we helped make them famous for their cooking, we can't now expect them to speak about unrelated matters.

Some influencers did speak out. But those who did not, are we really going to hold them guilty of omission?

Influencers are important to a degree because they can shape opinions. And they can certainly put pressure on politicians and decision-makers. But should we expect them to do so just because they have a sizeable following?

It is often pointless to try to force influencers to express an opinion if they don't care to. Our rage could even put them off the cause.

Imagine the affect the vitriol being sent by thousands, or in some cases, millions of followers can have on influencers' psyche when to most of us even one person's words can be hurtful.

Influencers have their reasons to not make a statement. First, there are many causes and no one can speak up for all of them. There is also the matter of personal security. Influencers are sometimes threatened and may choose not to speak up for fear of being harmed or even killed. Influencers, like the rest of us, are entitled to self-preservation.

Instead of getting angry at them, there are ways in which we can channel our energy more constructively to champion a cause we care about. We can lend support to those who choose to engage in activism, rather than rage against those who don’t. We can amplify those who speak up, by using our own social media channels. After all, that is exactly how one becomes an influencer – and instead of focusing on the power of influencers, we should focus on ours.

There is also a strategic element to all of this. Influencers gain influence only because we follow them. We essentially vote for them with our clicks and follows.

We can support those who engage in activism, rather than rage against those who don't

Whenever I ask fellow Muslim women, for example, who the most influential Muslim women in their lives are on social media, they mostly point to people in the beauty, fashion and lifestyle businesses. If they are the celebrities we elevate by following them, then why are we surprised that all they talk about is what beauty, fashion and lifestyle?

Our social media feeds and the people we follow reflect our priorities and give us an understanding of who we are.

Influencers rarely emerge overnight. So if we want influencers who address news issues, then we can start following them, so that they have the time to build their following.

To expect people to speak out and say the things we want them to say amounts to a misunderstanding of activism. Rather than directing our anger at influencers for not engaging with issues we care about, we could take up the cause and become activists ourselves.

Shelina Janmohamed is an author and a culture columnist for The National