Why Influencers Think They’re Immune to COVID-19

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At the time of writing this, in the United States alone, there have been over 4 million cases of COVID-19. On top of that, we have almost 144,000 deaths from this novel coronavirus. I remember when the pandemic first started, as I tried to calm my anxiety down, I told my self that I wouldn’t freak out until deaths passed how many people die from the common flu each year. Well, about 60,000 people die from the flu each year in the United States, and we’re only in July, and we’ve more than doubled that.

One of the main ways I calm my anxiety is by focusing on what I can control instead of what I can’t. So, my son, my girlfriend and I wash our hands regularly and we don’t leave our house unless absolutely necessary. I’ve had plenty friends suggest hanging out, but I’ve told them no because of the pandemic, and I know how many people aren’t adhering to the pandemic guidelines. In order to limit our exposure, I go to the grocery store by myself and wear a mask each time.

Although I and many of you are doing the best we can to slow down this pandemic in order to keep ourselves, our loved ones, and others around the world safe, there are many people walking around as if nothing in this world is different. And specifically for this piece, we’re going to be discussing TikTokers and other influencers who are being bad influences with their behaviors during this pandemic.

I first felt as though I was living in a different reality when I watched Cody Ko’s video on The Hollywood Fix following TikTokers. While his video was hilarious and discussing this man who follows these kids around, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of masks and social distancing. Not only are these TikTok influencers interacting with each other without masks, but I noticed that they’re even interacting with fans without masks.

This wasn’t an isolated incident either. Around the same time, I saw James Charles with TikTokers doing a collaboration, and since then James has also done collaborations with Charli and Dixi D’amilio. As we continue to see TikTokers and YouTubers continue to collaborate, people like you and I wonder if we’re ever going to get out of this pandemic.

Recently, it’s become even worse, and more influencers are calling out their friends. After news broke about TikTokers and YouTubers having a party at the Hype House, Philip DeFranco had some choice words for influencers.

Also, Chris Klemens, although a light-hearted and funny channel, has had enough of seeing his fellow influencers disregard the fact that we’re in a pandemic. Yesterday, he even tweeted this out as a way to publicly shame influencers who are being bad influences:

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In response to his tweet, people listed the likes of James Charles, Tana Mongeau, Emma Chamberlain, David Dobrik and other members of the vlog squad.

It’s been interesting seeing how the pandemic has become partisan with many people from the right side of the aisle being against wearing masks. After months of downplaying the virus, Donald Trump finally said that we can help end the pandemic by wearing masks, and this was huge when we consider how much influence he has.

But as I thought about his influence that he has in getting people to wear masks or not wear masks, I thought about how little influence he has compared to influencers on TikTok and YouTube.

Here’s a list of some of the highest follower accounts from som of the influencer offenders on our list:

James Charles: 20.4 million

Emma Chamberlain: 9.1 million

David Dobrik: 18 million

Tana Mongeau: 5.4 million

Jake Paul: 20.1 million

Charli D’amelio: 73.7 million

Dixie D’amelio: 30.8 million

Lil Huddy: 22.2 Million

Larray: 12.4 million

There are many more that I haven’t even listed, but just to put it into perspective, Donald Trump’s largest follower count is on Twitter where he has a following of 84.1 million followers. Now, don’t get me wrong. Donald Trump is still a terrible influence when it comes to the pandemic and is still denying the science and the data, but we’re using his as an example of someone who has a massive amount of influence on people not wearing masks.

Meanwhile, the combined follower account of these non-mask wearing non-social distancing TikTokers and YouTubers listed above is 212.1 million. And yes, some of these influencers are going to have overlap with their followings. But even if we conservatively said that 50 million of the 212.1 million followers follow more than one of these influencers, their total influence is still more than double that of Donald Trump on social media.

Aside from the influence that these kids have, I was also curious as to why they think they’re immune to COVID or don’t believe they’ll pass it on to people they love. On top of that, I think it’s important we understand how much influence they have over their followers.

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of books on the psychology of social influence and conformity. Some of my recent favorites include:

Under the Influence by Robert Frank

Conformity by Cass Sunstein

Why We Act by Catherine Sanderson

Popular by Mitch Prinstein

Social Physics by Alex Pentland

These books have a lot of psychological answers as to why we’re influenced, so with all of these influencers being less-than-acceptable role models during this pandemic, I thought we could try to answer some questions.

In this piece, we discuss the psychological impact influencers have on us, the psychological impact they have on each other, and what we can do to be better examples for the people in our lives.

I was also really curious as to who has more influence: the influencers or the influence we have on one another. For example, influencers definitely do influence some of our behaviors, but how much is their influence compared to what we do as a way to conform with a group? While researching this piece, I found some psychological studies that explain who has more influence (them or us), but that’s a topic for another piece.

Can Health Decisions be Influenced?

I’ve also discussed this with my girlfriend because like many others, she watches beauty influencers. Although she watches beauty youtubers of all types, I’ve asked her how much she’s influenced by the makeup that these YouTubers recommend when she’s making her purchases, and what she said really makes sense. For makeup, she needs YouTubers with a similar skin type as her, so it makes sense to see how it looks on them before she makes a purchase.

But what about when it comes to decisions that can impact our health? Sure, it’s no big deal if we buy some makeup or use a VPN service, but would we really take health advice from an influencer? For example, when we see influencers at large gatherings and not wearing masks, would that really influence us?

Currently, there isn’t much data around this topic when it comes to how people are influenced during the pandemic, but we do have another health example we can pull from.

Many influencers from Trisha Paytas to the Kardashians have promoted flat tummy teas and appetite suppressant lollipops. If you remember, the Tati and James drama began because he promoted vitamins for anxiety. These are clear, very real examples of influencers having an influence on health decisions that people are making. So much so, that actress and advocate Jameela Jamil was the driving force in getting Instagram to change it’s policies on promoting diet products.

There is clear evidence out there that many of these diet products can be harmful, and those like Jamil discuss how it promotes weight loss culture. But why do people trust these influencers?

I believe it’s for the same reason I was able to be sober, which was a common saying, “If you want what they have, do what they do.” When people see others with what they deem the ideal body type, they figure that if they want what they have, they need to do what that influencer is doing.

The major difference between using this method in sobriety and when it comes to trying to reach body image goals is that you’re not seeing everything. People often forget that the Kardashians and Trisha Paytas also have access to many other resources that the average person doesn’t. Many of these celebrities promote these diet products, but they’ve also had multiple cosmetic cprocedures from botox, to liposuction, to butt implants. On top of that, they also have access to the best fitness trainers, dieticians, and nutritionists in the world.

Critical thinking involves realizing that one piece isn’t as much information as the sum of all its parts. So, when you see an influencer promoting a diet product, you need to also ask yourself, “What other factors may contribute to their physical appearance?” This is what we’re talking about when we discuss good science. A skeptical, critical thinker will consider the additional resources these wealthy people have as well as other factors such as good genetics.

So, now that we know that influencers can in fact influence decisions we make about our own health, it’s time to figure out how much influencers actually influence their audiences when it comes to subjects like social distancing and wearing masks. We’re also going to have to see how influencers influence each other if we want to come up with some viable solutions.

The Influencer Effect

The primary biological factor is a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex of our brain is what separates us from other animals and has brought us to the top of the food chain. It has a variety of responsibilities from emotional regulation to self-awareness, but one of it’s other jobs is fear modulation. Fear modulation is our capability to know what we should be afraid of, which is something many people don’t have a strong ability to do yet.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain doesn’t fully develop until our mid- to late-20’s. And some studies even say that most men don’t fully develop their prefrontal cortex until their early 30s. So, due to a brain that’s not yet fully matured, young people are more likely to have blind optimism that they won’t catch COVID-19, and they also believe that even if they do get it, they’ll be fine.

If you’re like me, you’re probably saying, “But it isn’t just about them. It’s about the other people they may infect like their parents or grandparents.” Well, this is where the experiential factors come in. One of the ways we learn is through experiences, and when you’re young, you don’t have many experiences to learn from.

Using myself as an example, by the time I was the age of people like James Charles or Charli D’amelio, I hadn’t experienced much death. I had a grandmother who I wasn’t close to die when I was really young, and I also had 2 high school friends die at very young ages. Even with these experiences, they seemed like freak instances rather than something to actually worry about.

As I got older, I started experiencing a lot more death. The biggest wakeup call to me was when I was working at a rehab for 3 years. During those 3 years, I had over 70 people die, and many of them were my age or younger. Not only that, but when asked if they’d lost anyone, more than 90% of my clients would raise their hands.

Unfortunately, many of us don’t have a healthy fear until it happens to us or people close to us. This is one of my main concerns with COVID-19. People like these TikTokers and YouTubers believe that since it hasn’t happened to them or anyone close to them, it’s nothing they need to worry about. This is what’s called the optimism bias, and it’s a dangerous way to live.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Most people look at their anxiety as a curse, but personally, I’ve learned that my anxiety is a blessing because it makes me ensure that I always wear a mask and social distance.

Now, let’s discuss how much influence these TikTokers and YouTubers have over their audiences. In a peer reviewed study titled An examination of the celebrity endorsements and online customer reviews influence female consumers’ shopping behavior the authors state:

“Most studies on celebrity endorsers have explored how the credibility of the source affects the success of the message. A highly credible source is more persuasive than a less credible source in influencing audience attitudes and behavioral intentions (Sternthal, Phillips, & Dholakia, 1978). Ohanian (1990) has synthesized the previous literature on this subject and proposed three distinct dimensions of celebrity endorser credibility: expertise, trustworthiness, and attractiveness.”

And they also go onto say in their section on the consumer action model:

“Human information processing theory is concerned with how people gather, interpret, and use information to make decisions (Newell and Simon, 1958, Norman, 1968, Reitman, 1965). Information processing theory conceptualizes how people attend to environmental events, encode information to be learned, relate it to what they already know, store new knowledge in their memory, and retrieve it as needed (Shuell, 1986), cited in Schunk (2000). Scholars have shown that consumers’ choices are shaped by the ways in which human’s process information (Huber & Seiser, 2001).”

So, influencers have more influence if they meet various criteria such as expertise, trustworthiness and attractiveness. If you remember our many discussions on the cognitive bias known as the halo effect, often times we can take something as arbitrary as attractiveness and believe it also makes the person have expertise and trustworthiness.

As these TikTok and YouTube stars continue to go out in large gatherings and continue to collaborate all while not wearing masks, they’re influencing hundreds of millions of people. Due to the halo effect, people think that since these young, attractive, rich kids are able to party and disregard covid-19 restrictions, they don’t need to obey either. And this is extremely scary.

While the entire world needs to get on the same page when it comes to wearing masks and social distancing, these influencers have a lot of power. In this final section, we’re going to discuss how influencers influence each other, and how maybe they can start being positive role models.

We All Get Peer Pressured

Remember all those books I listed at the beginning of this piece? In order to sound like we’re independent thinkers, we say that we don’t just follow the crowd, but decades of social psychology has proved otherwise. Our default is to do what others are doing, and it takes more cognitive effort to do something else. Aside from the cognitive effort, there are a lot of risks that come along with not doing what everyone else is doing.

This all makes a lot more sense from a psychological standpoint when you think of TikTokers and YouTubers as a tribe. When you’re part of a tribe, you do what people in the tribe are doing. It can be dangerous to go against the tribe and not conform because what if they kick you out of the tribe?

Studies have shown that when you’re rejected from a tribe, it triggers the same centers in the brain as emotional pain. A study that’s been replicated many times has a person play a computer game with 2 other people passing a ball. What the participant doesn’t know is that the two other people are actually computers. After a while, the computers only pass the ball to each other. Once the participant starts feeling rejected, with brain imaging scans, researchers can see the pain centers light up in the brain. In one study, they actually found that aspirin actually helped decrease emotional pain when someone was rejected.

Social isolation is such torture that there are debates around whether or not solitary confinement in prisons is cruel and unusual punishment. So, in the mind of these TikTokers and YouTubers, it’s advantageous to do what their peers are doing. And when you think about someone like James Charles who experienced the intense pain of being cancelled last year, he’s more likely to conform than anyone in order to avoid experiencing that pain again.

So, what’s the solution? Well, if you remember from the famous Solomon Ash conformity study we discussed in a previous video, you know that it only takes one person. If just one person in a group is brave enough to say something is wrong, others develop the courage as well to speak up.

Right now, influencers like Philip DeFranco, Chris Klemens, and others are being positive influencers on their peers by calling out this type of behavior. But, it can only do so much. Although Phil and Chris are both YouTubers, people like Lil Huddy, Tana Mongeau, Charli Damelio, and James Charles may not see them as part of their influencer click. In order to see the best results, we’ll need influencers within those circles to start doing what’s right.

A prime example is the craft YouTuber NerdECrafter calling out a fellow creator in the arts and crafts community

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But what about Chris Klemens’ and NerdECrafter’s tweets that were an effort to shame these influencers? Does shaming actually work?

In her book Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool, professor Jennifer Jacquet argues that yes, shaming is a useful tool for discouraging behaviors that negatively affect the community. BUT, there’s a big caveat when it comes to shaming. Yes, shaming can help alter a person or group’s behavior, but Jacquet outlines effective means of shaming.

For example, in her list of 7 effective habits for shaming, she says that effective shaming offers a path to redemption. So, what this would mean is that if shaming did help get these influencers to social distance and wear masks, we forgive them and not hold it over their head forever. This is actually one of the reasons why cancel culture is considered ineffective because it often doesn’t offer the person an opportunity to redeem themselves.

Although I do hope that these TikTokers and YouTubers redeem themselves by acting right, I understand why people are so upset. In a recent video, Chris Klemens went on a bit of a rant saying how he and many others like you and I are following the rules by staying inside so we can end this pandemic. Unfortunately, these influencers are being terrible role models, which is one of the many factors as to why we’re still in lockdown.

I’m fortunate enough to have a full-time job where I can work from home, and it also gives me the opportunity to write these pieces in my spare time. But I’m one of the lucky ones. Right now, millions of people are unemployed and millions more don’t have health insurance during a global pandemic. Worst of all, people are dying from this virus.

Yes, I know that these influencers primarily influence young people, but that’s a big deal. This year, my son is supposed to be transitioning from elementary school to middle school. This is a big transition because it’s a completely different format, but due to the pandemic, all schools will be at home for the foreseeable future. I know a lot of kids hate school, but my son loves it, and it’s sad that he can’t start this new chapter of his life yet.

These influencers have a lot of power, and they could do a lot of good. Imagine if they promoted wearing masks and social distancing to young people. What if they made PSAs telling young people to tell their parents to wear masks. With the fact that these TikTokers and YouTubers have influence over hundreds of millions of people, this could make a huge dent in the pandemic.

As a wise man once said, “With great power comes great responsibility”. So, how will you use your power to help end this pandemic?

If you need help with your mental health, I highly recommend the service I use, BetterHelp. They’re an affordable online therapy service, and by using this affiliate link, you help support The Rewired Soul.

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram@TheRewiredSoul. For more mental health blogs, check out www.TheRewiredSoul.com.

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Psychology/mental health/philosophy. Stay up to date by following me here & on Twitter/Instagram @TheRewiredSoul. Books available at www.TheRewiredSoul.com/shop

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