Gone are the days of Bono, John Lennon and Belafonte instead replaced by the popular influencers Shudu, Bermuda and Blawko.
Their accounts may be donned with the blue verified Instagram badge, but this squad of virtual models do not meet the real-life criteria of “authentic”. Led by the prominent ring leader Lil Miquela (Miquela Sousa), these computer generated imagery (CGI) models are changing the face of social media and activism.
Created in 2016 by technology company, Brud, Miquela Sousa is a self-described 19 year old Robot from L.A. with over 1.5 million followers on Instagram. Amongst the cascade of photos with other CGI influencers and real people on her Instagram feed, is a smattering of political and socially motivated content culminating in her bio, “Black Lives Matter @innocenceproject @lgbtlifecentre @justiceforyouth”. Whether she’s urging her followers to register to vote, sharing photos of Martin Luther King, or ‘writing letters’ to congress “in support of the trans community”, Miquela has become a modern day activist.
“Miquela is a champion of so many vital causes, namely Black Lives Matter and the absolutely essential fight for LGBTQ+ rights in this country. She is the future”, read a PR statement on Brud’s website.
Marlee Silva the co-founder of ‘tiddas4tiddas’, an Instagram account dedicated to sharing stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, was shocked to find out about CGI influencers who purport to be social and political activists.
“I’m just confused as to why they need to exist and have these sorts of attributes. There’s perfectly adequate and powerful real-life human beings who dedicate their lives to these social and political issues”, said Silva.
“They have lived experiences and can be on the front line, face to face with other supporters and the causes of the problems”, said Silva.
CGI influencers, however, are not limited to political and social activism and are most commonly featured in fashion campaigns. Last year, Miquela Sousa appeared in various campaigns for popular fashion house, ‘UGG’, whilst her fellow CGI influencer, Shudu, joined a host of other digitally created models as the brand ambassador for Balmain’s Fall/Winter campaign.
In a recent YouTube livestream, ‘Consent Condoms, Lush Cosmetics and Virtual Influencers’, digital agency Kubb and Co, discussed the new age phenomenon of CGI influencers as brand ambassadors.
“If you have a real brand ambassador and that brand ambassador does something stupid or it turns out that brand ambassador is racist, then it will backlash on your brand but that will never happen with a fully controlled digital persona”, said Kodox during the livestream.
In rebutting this proposed positivity, Silva said; “One fault of technologically developed humanoids like this though, is that while real humans are inherently flawed and victims to the human condition- which we accept- digital ones made of pixels rather than flesh and bone, can be viewed as flawless or without bias or negative characterisations or qualities”.
Sky News Presenter and social media influencer, Maddison-Clare Sloane, sees the financial incentive in the rise of CGI influencers for brands.
“Companies wouldn’t have to pay as much kitting us out and putting on events like the one with Pantene I attended a little while ago. I can’t image those things are cheap and virtual influencing would cut that cost completely”, said Sloane.
Whilst some suggest that the virtual influencing is a possible remedy to social media’s blameworthy increase in depression and anxiety amongst the younger generations. In considering the contrary, Sloane said; “ I think young girls particularly and more and more young guys now see all these perfect people, we were starting to move away from that with more accurate representation of human bodies and how people look and I think that virtual side of that completely destroys that move for me.”
“I think it’s hard to properly represent people without using… well people I guess”, said Sloane.
The most controversial CGI influencer Shudu, a darker toned model, has been popular in Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty campaigns. Many, including The New Yorker journalist Lauren Michele Jackson, were outraged at the fact that Shudu was created by 28 year old white photographer, Cameron-James Wilson.
When discussing Shudu, Silva said: “It’s like it’s cool to be black or brown at the moment, like we’re the flavour of the month, rather than to be situated in genuine and sustainable desires to raise the voices and brilliance of people of colour to the attention of the whole population”.
Despite raising concerns about the legitimacy and authenticity of CGI influencers, Silva was not concerned about the changing face of social media and activism.
“I have faith though that at the end of the day, human beings empathise and understand other human beings more than they can understand pixels and coded beings that happen to look and operate in a somewhat human way”, said Silva.