Influencer vibes

▪️ Influencer vibes ▪️ Real life or fiction? ▪️ Musings (from beyond the grave) ▪️ Miao, I am a cat

A recent Eurobarometer survey emphasised the significant influence of social media as a source of news. While TV remains a prominent choice for 71% of EU respondents to access news, the study highlighted a noteworthy revelation: 4 in 10 European citizens actively follow influencers on social media for their news updates.

The survey shed light on the changing dynamics of news consumption, indicating that influencers wield considerable impact in shaping public opinion and disseminating information. The findings underscore the emergence of a new paradigm, where individuals across the European Union increasingly turn to online personalities for their daily news intake.

Not to be outdone, people in Malta and Cyprus emerged as frontrunners in this news consumption trend, with 70% revealing that social media is their primary source of news. Hungary, Latvia, Greece, and Bulgaria followed closely with a shared percentage of 55% reliance on influencers for news.

As social media continue to play a pivotal role in shaping the media landscape, it prompts contemplation on the future of traditional news outlets and their ability to adapt to the evolving preferences of a digitally-engaged audience.  It probably explains why newspaper organisations in Malta recently got together to see how they can address the challenge.

It is hard to find consistent statistics about the situation in Malta.  The Times of Malta leads the pack in terms of followers of its online site, with a Broadcasting Authority survey showing that 56% of the public list it as their preferred source of local news. Lovin Malta is a distant second with 9% of the total share, followed by TVM, Newsbook, and Malta Today, all of whom registered under a 5% share of the public’s preference.

Then there is the modern phenomenon of social influencers. The site modash.com lists ex-premier Joseph Muscat as the most popular influencer in Malta, with 38,500 followers. I wouldn’t say Muscat is a social influencer in the normal sense of the term, his posts being mostly limited to defending his record when in government and trying to roll back negative comments on him.  

The site guidememalta.com lists red-head model Madeleine Baldacchino and TV presenter and model Grazielle Camilleri as having 62,000 followers each.  On Tik Tok, Jade Sammutkeeps her 374,800 followers happy by lip-syncing to her favourite tracks, while Sandmax24 creates comedy-based gaming content for his 304,900 followers. Valentina Rossi, with her iconic food challenge videos, get 29,000 followers.

Most social media influencers have established credibility in certain niches. They then use their authority to connect with a large audience on various social platforms. Considering that the average internet user spends more than two hours daily on social media, this offers great potential. Savvy marketers can partner with these influencers to promote their brands. Sometimes these individuals are celebrities using their social handles to influence purchasing decisions, while in others they’re famous for being influencers.

Of course, sometimes things can go awfully wrong. In Italy, Chiara Ferragni amassed a fortune through incessant selfie-taking as part of a marketing strategy that included imparting pearls of wisdom to her millions of online followers on how to be “effortlessly cool”.  But now the influencer is struggling to maintain her own prestige after a scandal over a Christmas cake triggered a fraud investigation, leaving her empire teetering on the edge in what has become a cautionary tale for other social media stars.

In late 2022, Ferragni joined forces with Balocco to endorse its pandoro Christmas cake. The Ferragni-branded cake was priced at €9, almost triple the standard version. The company and Ferragni, who on Instagram alone has 29.4 million followers, claimed proceeds raised from the cakes would be donated to a children’s hospital in Turin.  In fact, Balocco had given €50,000 to the hospital prior to the initiative’s launch and made no further donations. Ferragni earned more than €1m from the campaign, according to Italy’s anti-trust authority.

The list of influencers is endless: lifestyle, travel, fashion, beauty, fitness, sports, entertainment, and politics, among others.  Social media influencers are not just celebrities; they include common people who share content in the form of recommendations or information on social media and build a significant number of followers. Increasing numbers of consumers have started following their advice in their purchasing decisions and, as a result, influencers have created a hold on brands and consumers alike.

There are both positive and negative aspects to the impact of social influencers on society. I must say it is not my scene, but then dinosaurs like me are becoming largely extinct.

Real life or fiction?  

“Ms Elaine, I have come here to tell you that I have constitutional rights to raise my hand and to freedom of speech. You may not know this from your studies at law school but let me assure you that my studies on the street have taught me the basics of the law. Thus, I know that though these incompetent police say I have robbed money and objects, been found in possession of drugs and other psychoactive substances, found in possession of a knife without having the required licence, and threatened a public officer, I am innocent until proven guilty. Though I have been assigned legal aid, this two-cent lawyer is no match for me.”

This is a liberal adaptation of words addressed by Shaun Caruana, a 28-year-old, to Magistrate Elaine Rizzo in Court recently.  

The Prosecution had the temerity to describe Caruana’s penal record as “colourful”.  For the record, the legal aid lawyer, who had his work cut out by his own client, pleaded that there should not be any argument about his client’s past – a rather cryptic observation, I would say.

Of course, there is some truth in the idiom “the law is an ass”, but for somebody charged with such a series of crimes, the right course of action would have been to sit quietly in court, show some respect to the president of the court, and then plead “not guilty”.  Alas, the man concerned may be an adult, but his behaviour was that of an irresponsible youngster.

Musings (from beyond the grave)

Grief tech is here and with it come chatbots that connect users to their departed loved ones.  There are already some weird applications for generative AI, but talking to the dead might take the cake.

For example, hereafter.ai lets me record answers to interview questions and upload photos while I am still alive, leaving behind a virtual version of myself.  Or I can use storyfile.com to record videos of myself that are turned into AI-powered, interactive conversations for my loved ones.  Once I input the basic information, my surviving family and friends will be able to chat with me via Seance AI’s ghostbot.

Mind you, like with most AI products, grief tech carries certain risks.  A recent study highlights the ethical issues around such AI applications, including lack of consent from the deceased, risks of psychological dependency for users, and harmful or biased language.  Then there is the whole ethical debate about deepfakes of the departed, which has led to some governments regulating post-mortem publicity rights, though these tend to focus on celebrities.

People seem to have no problem using technology to cope with loss.  As a result, deathcare startups have started offering support and creative solutions to people dealing with death:  Parting Stone turns ashes into stones, Recompose transforms human remains into soil, and Tomorrow Bio is attempting to mainstream cryopreservation.

In theory, there is no reason why I can’t use generative AI to train my ghostbot in my writing style, teach it to trawl the newspapers on-line, use my research methodology, and keep commenting on current affairs from beyond the grave.   Eventually, the editor of this journal himself could do likewise, and so could the current readers.  Then we would have come round a full circle, with a virtual journal written by virtual opinion-writers for virtual readers.

This possibility reminds me of The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka’s classic novella that explores the absurdity of human existence through the story of Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one day transformed into a giant insect.  Instead of giant insects, we would bizarrely be transformed into bots, setting a tone of surrealism and disorientation to the opinion pieces.  The transformation would also reflect our subconscious desire to live on, with the bot-written opinion pieces hinting at the precariousness of the human condition.

Miao, I am a cat

A new review by Australian researchers suggests that having a cat as a pet could potentially double a person’s risk of schizophrenia-related disorders. This idea that cat ownership could be linked to schizophrenia was first proposed in a 1995 study, with exposure to a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii suggested as a cause.

T. gondii is a mostly harmless parasite that can be transmitted through undercooked meat or contaminated water.  A bite from an infected cat or the feces of an infected cat can also transmit T. gondii.  It is estimated that, in the US alone, around 40 million people may be infected, usually without any symptoms.

Once inside our body, T. gondii can infiltrate the central nervous system and influence neurotransmitters. Some personality changes, the emergence of psychotic symptoms, and some neurological disorders have been attributed to the parasite.  However, a link doesn’t prove T. gondii causes these changes or that the parasite was passed on to a human from a cat.

Some also link cat exposure to higher scores on scales that measure traits related to schizophrenia – which affects a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours – and psychotic-like experiences, but other studies don’t show this connection.

Photo: Beyzaa Yurtkuran

Having said that, there are some important things to keep in mind here.  Because 15 of the 17 studies were case-control studies that do not look at things that might have affected both the exposure and the outcome, this kind of research cannot prove cause and effect.  Also, a number of the studies that were looked at were of low quality. In general, findings were inconsistent across studies.

A study in the US, which involved 354 psychology students, didn’t find a connection between owning a cat and schizotypy scores. However, those who had been bitten by a cat had higher scores when compared to those who had not.  Another study that included people with and without mental disorders discovered a connection between cat bites and higher scores on tests measuring particular psychological experiences, though other pathogens, such as Pasteurella multocida, may have been responsible instead.

The feeling that I am a cat, therefore, may not mean that I am a cat.  OK, I realise I am a creature of habit, much as I admit that I am inquisitive, but not adventurous, and that I am easily upset by sudden changes of routine.  But having cat-like characteristics does not make me one. After all, this fixation about cats only started when the editor of this journal asked me to start writing for it.  It could well be, therefore, that the editor’s love of cats implanted in me the idea that I might be one of the felidae.

Main photo: SHVETS production

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