The novel coronavirus is a horrific pandemic that’s already killed thousands worldwide. And yes, in the U.S. it has yet to even peak—which makes the coming days and weeks a crucial time to stanch its growth. But couldn’t it also be... a branding opportunity? For some influencers, the answer appears to be an enthusiastic “Yes... and have you tried my detox program?”
It will likely surprise no one that a community often criticized for pushing laxative tea and snapping photos in front of memorials has run afoul during the pandemic as well. And true to form, some influencers both established and aspiring have responded to the global pandemic by posing in gas masks, using the virus to sell their own products, and even, in one confounding case, licking an airplane toilet.
The shenanigans began almost immediately when news of the virus began to spread in January. As multiple outlets reported at the time, influencers began posting photos of themselves—in some cases, shirtless or in bathing suits—using the hashtag #coronavirus. While some of the posts gestured vaguely at public service, others seemed to simply be flooding an increasingly popular hashtag.
For instance: the German YouTuber Fitness Oskar posted a photo of himself and his girlfriend (now fiancée) kissing through face masks in Thailand. “We are not afraid of the virus,” he wrote, adding later, “We still enjoy our vacation and hope that this misery will be stopped soon!”
He then went on to promote his YouTube video about the state of the virus in Thailand.
Logan Paul, the widely derided YouTuber best known for an ill-conceived video filmed in Japan’s “suicide forest,” posted an image of himself shirtless, surrounded by women in gas masks. The caption? “f**k the corona virus.”
But the shirtless posts are only the tip of the viral iceberg.
As Business Insider reported in February, wellness influencers and micro-influencers have also been doling out dubious, potentially lethal advice. Some, for instance, have suggested that taking megadoses of certain vitamins can prevent coronavirus and treat its symptoms—but as experts told the publication, doing so is potentially lethal.
Dr. Paige Jarreau, director of communications for the medical tech company LifeOmic and co-founder of Lifeology.io, which connects scientists with artists to better spread scientific information, told The Daily Beast that people assess credibility in many different ways—and affiliation with credible institutions is only one of them. Some others, based on her research, include attractiveness, sociability, and whether an expert posts selfies. (Also of import: Is the person smiling in the selfie?) People’s personal ties to influencers—whether they once watched them on TV or have simply been following them a long time—can all make them trust these figures as authorities.
“In this time of uncertainty, people do want to find that voice that they can trust,” Dr. Jarreau said. “And there’s so much information out there that once they find that someone, they might kind of latch onto them and think, ‘OK, I think that what this person is sharing, I can trust...’ It helps us deal with what would be otherwise way too much. ”
“The problem,” she said, “is that they might turn to, you know, a Bachelor contestant or someone they’ve seen on TV or someone that they follow on Instagram who isn’t a scientist... That’s where it becomes a problem, because they might trust that person without fact-checking them at all.”
And speaking of The Bachelor, franchise alum and fitness coach Krystal Nielson recently suggested that there’s one easy way to avoid contracting the virus: Sign up for her two-week detox program!
Nielson said in a recent video posted to Instagram that she’d been watching the news—“which is literally hysteria with everyone freaking out”—and that she’d heard a doctor say that children were not coming down with COVID-19 because they, unlike adults, do not suffer from severe inflammation. Soon after, she began talking up her detox program, which starts Sunday, called Reset & Rebalance.
“It is healing through whole food,” Nielson said. “It is finding ways to de-stress, it is finding natural ways to heal yourself from the inside out.”
“Take a chill pill, grab some green juice, and go do some yoga,” Nielson added. “You’re gonna feel better.” And while you can’t put a price on happiness, Nielson has put a price on “feeling better”; according to her program’s website, it’ll cost you anywhere between $97 and $494.
Fitness and wellness guru Ingrid De La Mare-Kenny claims that a product called Simply Inulin—which she just happens to sell in her own online store—also protects against coronavirus, according to an unnamed doctor.
“The immune system is within us, we can’t buy it, but we sure can boost it and make it bullet proof to Corona,” De La Mare-Kenny wrote. She suggested eating foods rich in Vitamins C, E, and B6, and said to “ERADICATE” processed foods, as well as diet products. “[I]t all makes sense now,” she wrote. “SIMPLY INULIN can be the very weapon to boost your immune system and fight off Corona Virus.”
It can be easy to dismiss these kinds of posts. After all, who expects an influencer to be an expert in virology? But as Dr. Jarreau pointed out, studies have shown that misinformation on social media can travel further and faster than accurate information—because often, it’s simple and can seem novel from other advisories.
“An influencer already has a strong following on social media...if they do put misinformation out there and it starts to get retweeted, it could travel very quickly,” Dr. Jarreau said, adding, “It’s also very difficult to correct myths.” It’s hard to reach everyone who has seen a piece of false information, she said. Plus, a person who already fell for a myth might not love the stab to their ego that comes with having been duped—“especially if you’re making them feel like they’re stupid, or you're being kind of aggressive and mistrusting.”
At the same time, plenty of influencers have used their platforms in constructive ways. On Thursday, after a plea from Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Kylie Jenner posted a PSA on her Instagram story imploring her fans to take the pandemic seriously. Fashion and travel bloggers have used their platforms to elevate small businesses, while medical influencers share updates and advisories on how to best protect ourselves and others. Some fitness bloggers, meanwhile, are offering free workouts for people trapped at home.
Emilie Tabor, who co-founded the influencer marketing agency IMA, told The Daily Beast via email, “In light of the COVID-19 outbreak we see influencers pausing to take a pulse–a second to see how their followers and even they as individuals are feeling.”
“That’s the most important step, and I think influencers who are doing that will remain relevant, authentic and human,” she added. “They won’t be capitalizing on this moment, but rather using it as an opportunity to connect.” And as for the “marketing” portion of the agency’s work: “If a brand fits authentically into that story, then it works.”
Perhaps the most fascinating coronavirus content to come out of the influencer world is courtesy of Arielle Charnas, a fashion blogger and influencer who has a line with Nordstrom called Something Navy.
On Monday Charnas told her followers she was feeling sick, but that she could not get tested because she was not showing every symptom. She was later able to skip the line, however, thanks to doctor and fellow influencer Dr. Jake Deutsch, who conducted a drive-by test. Charnas shared footage of her test on her Instagram story, allowing her followers to watch the process. On Wednesday, she said she had tested positive and shared details of her symptoms.
But another contingent of influencers has downplayed the outbreak altogether. For instance: Holistic influencer @RoseUncharted—an anti-vaxxer with more than 61,000 followers—posted a meme dismissing the coronavirus threat just last week. And according to BuzzFeed News reporter Stephanie McNeal, who has been keeping excellent tabs on several influencers’ responses to the virus, @RoseUncharted also spread disinformation about the virus in her stories.
And let’s not forget clout-chasers—people who aren’t quite influencers but really want to be. When the outbreak first began, NBC News reported that some social media users had begun posting misinformation, sometimes from new accounts, seemingly in the hopes of going viral. And more recently, Miami native and two-time Dr. Phil guest Ava Louise took another approach: posting an instantly infamous viral “challenge” on TikTok in which she...licked a toilet seat for some reason.
All in a day’s work chasing virality—even in the midst of a viral pandemic.