I’m doing the world a favour!

Social media has become a major part of our daily life as we spend more of our time on its platforms connecting with friends and family. What is striking, however, is that many of the users who joined platforms like YouTube, TikTok, Triller, and Instagram Reels have become content creators themselves, curating and creating their own stories, photos, and videos for others to entertain.

The influencers market has experienced such rapid growth that many children now want to become vloggers or influencers when they are grown up. The COVID pandemic seems to have prodded many people to start their own channels. It is not known how many influencers exist in the world and across all social media platforms, but some hazard a guess that it is somewhere between three to 38 million.

Social influence involves intentional and unintentional efforts to change another person’s beliefs, attitudes, or behaviour. It is not the same thing as persuasion, which is typically intentional and requires some degree of awareness on the part of the target. In contrast, social influence may be inadvertent or accidental.

Social influence often operates through peripheral processing where the target is often unaware of the influence attempt. Unlike efforts to gain compliance, which are usually goal directed, social influence is often non-goal directed and the outcomes may be inconsistent with a communicator’s goals. Social influence takes in such strategies as indebtedness or reciprocity, commitment, social proof, liking and attractiveness, authority, and scarcity.

Social influence is ubiquitous in human societies. It takes a wide variety of forms, ranging from obedience through conformity, persuasion, social loafing, social facilitation, deindividuation, observer effect, bystander effect, to peer pressure.

Research on social influence has a long history in social psychology. An experiment on social facilitation effect that was conducted in 1898 by psychologist Norman Triplett is considered as the first social psychological experiment.  Since then, social influence has fascinated scholars in various fields. 

The fact that we very rarely make choices in isolation of outside influences, has led to the emergence of behavioural economics and nudge theory as important components of neuroeconomics. They often provide the key to understanding the choices made by consumers and economic operators.

Take our attitude to taxes on alcohol or sugar consumption. Some contend that their body is their own, and that they should be left to make their own decisions. Of course, public health policy would never admit to trying to curtail individual freedom in cases where the negative consequences of their behaviours can be internalized. However, it also holds that if there are externalities, or public costs, to these behaviours (as there often are with obese people and their higher exposure to heart disease), the government is justified in campaigning to reduce the incidence of such behaviours. Thus, it is not only that social forces influence our behaviours, but that, in turn, our behaviours impact societal outcomes.

In one classic example, the Behavioural Insights Team in the UK’s Cabinet Office worked with the UK’s tax collection agency to increase tax payments by sending out reminder letters stating that most people in the recipient’s area had paid their tax. The impetus for this intervention was the simple insight that no one wants to be the naughty individual in their community, and that reframing tax payment as not only a legal obligation but a social norm would increase compliance. The letters emphasising the positive social norms produced a 15% higher response rate than the standard letter, and it has been estimated that if the approach was taken across the country, it could help to collect £160m extra tax revenues per year.

Similarly, the US Army’s Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) analysed vast quantities of data to identify the tipping point at which a marginal belief becomes the majority opinion. Their estimate suggests that at least 10% of people have to hold an opinion for it to have a chance of being adopted more widely. Thus, they argue, a small group can create change — so long as they are committed and consistent in their belief.

Perhaps the most effective way to achieve widespread modification of behaviour is to reach those 10%. If word of mouth is the best form of advertising, obvious and clear actions could be the best form of encouraging social change. It is exactly what Donald Trump did to sell the Big Lie that the 2020 Presidential Election was stolen.

What these results all suggest is that, though we like to think of our choices as our own, in fact, they are often profoundly impacted by the choices and views of our peers. In that way, John Donne was right — no man is an island. Especially when it comes to behaviour.

Although we like to think of our choices as our own, in fact, they are often profoundly impacted by the choices and views of our peers.

Malta is no stranger to influencers. Our own hair artist Stella Cini has more than 821,000 followers on her Instagram account. X Factor Malta judge Sarah Zerafa boasts almost 240,000 followers, with her fashion and travel photos.

Model Madeleine Baldacchino, with 139,000 followers of her Instagram account, is described by GuideMeMalta.com as being able to “rock a bikini like it’s nobody’s business”. Baldacchino uses gorgeous Malta scenery and her fiery red mane to influence her followers on anything from gardening through entomology, beekeeping to the environment.

Influencers are now using their marketing clout to raise revenue, either for themselves or for worthy causes. According to Mediakix, influencer marketing is 80% effective or very effective.  No wonder that celebrities have made it a fully-fledged business. Cristiano Ronaldo earns between $466K-$777K per sponsored post on Instagram, closely followed by Ariana Grande at $391K-$652K. If a young boy wants to become a football star, he would no doubt be influenced by Ronaldo’s post “I’ve achieved so much wearing Mercurial boots. Now, I am excited to see you all follow your dreams in my new #Mercurial Dream Speed.”

Personally, I do not follow the influencers, though I must say that Kino MacGregor struck a chord when he wrote, “Do the world a favour and believe in your greatness.”

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