The influence of de-influencers

A new wave of content creators is shaking up the established influencer scene by prioritising purpose over profit, signalling the shift towards more responsible social media. 
Aakanksha Monga is known for off-beat travel. She has 736K followers on Instagram and 254K subscribers on YouTube. 'Don't go to Italy in the summer' is a popular myth-busting video by her.
Aakanksha Monga is known for off-beat travel. She has 736K followers on Instagram and 254K subscribers on YouTube. 'Don't go to Italy in the summer' is a popular myth-busting video by her.

I like Virat Kohli. The guy is a national treasure. But I am sorry to say he is very health- and science-illiterate and a prototype of the beggarly scientific temper that defines the majority of Indians today,” wrote Kochi-based clinician-scientist and hepatologist Dr Abby Philips aka The Liver Doc on his social media channel.

As a vanguard of the rising de-influencing movement in India, battling general health-related ignorance, he is making strong ground for evidence-based use of knowledge over nonsensical chatter. His angst towards Kohli was over the cricketer’s explanation for turning vegetarian, claiming that eating meat was making his stomach acidic, leading to leakage of calcium from his bones, which, in turn, caused his cervical spine disc to prolapse.

As a response, Philips offered a medically informed perspective: “Calcium does not leach away as the stomach is acidic. Eating meat does not cause calcium loss. Increasing the protein intake from 1 g/kg body weight to 2 g/kg, given as meat, does not hurt calcium metabolism.”

Misinformation menace

This is not the first instance of a celebrity being criticised for their opinion, but this is certainly the first time in the space of digital influence that the authentic and responsible voice reverberates more strongly than the traditional ones. The movement gets further propelled by the storm of scrutiny surrounding the influencer community, which is often implicated for spreading unsubstantiated claims. The prevalence of celebrities and influencers without qualifications presenting themselves as experts only adds to the mistrust. The growing instances of deception, fakery, manipulation and misrepresentation have made audiences more disillusioned with the digital creators.

Take, for instance, the time when a popular Chinese vlogger, Royal Highness Qiao Biluo, used a face filter to appear much younger, but a technical glitch revealed her actual appearance, or when Swedish Instagram influencer Johanna Olsson was harshly criticised for allegedly faking a trip to Paris by posting photoshopped pictures. Closer home, fashion influencer Santoshi Shetty was reprehended for offering therapy without having any qualifications. Similarly, influencer Nitibha Kaul faced backlash for using impoverished people as props for a Sabyasachi x H&M photo shoot. The tipping point, however, came with the untimely demise of six international fitness influencers this year, who fell victim to the relentless pursuit of perfection. 

The Government of India too recently introduced regulations, mandating content creators to disclose their credentials before making any health claims. Amid growing cases of misplaced advice by finfluencers, the Securities and Exchange Board of India also cracked down on dubious ones selling crorepati dreams. In a concerted action to curb instances of tax evasion, the Income Tax Department initiated a nationwide action plan to zero in on influencers evading taxes. Given the multi-layered dynamics reshaping the landscape of digital influence—with a market value of $16.4 billion in 2022— de-influencing rides the high tide of a wave marked by a desire for authenticity and accountability.

Truth be told

The lack of transparency is particularly pronounced in the wellness space with several creators making unverified claims about products and practices, and promoting questionable health supplements. Given the riot of false facts, the government’s move to introduce guidelines is being seen as a welcome step but is “far from being the final piece of the puzzle that brings meaning to the chaotic environment of healthcare in social media”, says Philips, who has 183K followers on Twitter. He calls it an oversimplified guideline that “only mentions showcasing disclaimers for the online healthcare information-consuming audience and doesn’t even scratch the surface of deeply grown challenges in battling misinformation”.

The de-influencer, known for routinely tearing down quackery concepts, has also been dismantling the myth surrounding the use of herbal supplements. His research and findings also demonstrate the presence of contaminants in major protein brands, including those with a seal of clearance from the Food Safety Standards Authority of India. “Calling out influencers without fear of repercussions is a virtue I’ve learned the hard way, but the most important thing remains to educate patients and their families, not just in routine clinical practice, but also in social, visual and print media. Medical professionals must fight tooth and nail against misinformation menace, both within and outside the fraternity. This also means that one must be ready to face litigations, trolling, abuses and doxing when speaking the truth,” he says.

Fighting the wildfire of unsubstantiated health claims is another straight shooter, Kolkata-based Revant Himatsingka, a double major in Finance and Management from NYU Stern School of Business, US, and a certified health coach, who, through his channel Foodpharmer on Instagram, uses humour and science to help people make informed decisions. It’s another matter that his outspokenness courts trouble. Recently, Cadbury’s Bournvita slapped him with a legal notice for allegedly defaming the brand’s popular ‘health drink’. Himatsingka called out the brand for exaggerating Bournvita’s nutritional value, while taking a jibe at its tagline ‘tayyari jeet ki’, which he suggested should be changed to ‘taiyyari diabetes ki’. He subsequently retracted his statement due to legal implications. But by then, the post had garnered 12 million views. “You pay the price for challenging the status quo, but my resolve to create honest content is stronger than ever now. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to criticise,” says the young de-influencer.  

The vital role played by these advocates of truth becomes even more indispensable when cases of severe side effects emerge. Kirandeep Kaur, a 45-year-old fashion boutique owner in Delhi, had no previous history of allergies or food sensitivities, but she found herself in the emergency room of a hospital last year due to an anaphylactic shock. Upon examination, the doctor suspected that the culprit was artificial food colouring present in the watermelon she had post-supper. “I regret not knowing that a watermelon could be injected with synthetic dye. It was only months later that I stumbled upon a video by content creator Miruna Bashkar who shared a tissue/cotton ball test to check for the presence of dyes in addition to explaining ways to identify harmful ingredients in food products, the associated health risks and safe alternatives… all in a visually attractive, quick-read format,” says Kaur.

For Bashkar, a certified Reiki master, and one of the pioneers of health de-influencing or as what she calls ‘influencing with purpose’, inspiration arose from adversity. As a victim of severe food poisoning and frustrated with a dearth of influencers addressing critical issues, she decided to fill in the void. “It’s the silent battles of misinformation that demand the loudest voices in a sea of influencers prioritising gains over genuine impact,” says Bashkar, with a following of 326K on Instagram.

Authenticity crisis

Delhi-based digital creator Aakanksha Monga, who is known for her unfiltered travel content, perceives this transformation as perfectly timed. When she took the step to dissuade her viewers from travelling to Italy in the summer, she received harsh criticism. While everybody glorifies the country’s charming villages, sparkling emerald waters, balmy breeze, idyllic vineyards and delectable cuisine, nobody talks about the traffic snarls, crowded streets and incredible heat. “Disappointed with the one-sided representation, I decided to make a reel on why one should avoid Italy in the summer. I also wanted my audiences to understand that even the most beautiful places may not be Gram-worthy during certain seasons,” says Monga, with 736K followers on Instagram. She believes that social media tends to put out polarised versions of a place—either good or bad—but in travel, like most other things, there is a vast spectrum of grey, which empowers audiences to make well-informed decisions.

“Dissecting facts with the precision of a surgeon week after week is a tiring pursuit, but is the only way to reinstate the public’s trust back in published science over what some random uncle is saying on the internet,” says Chennai-based Krish Ashok, a prominent voice in the food de-influencing space and the author of the best-selling book Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking. “While the advice is personal, misinformation is universal and that’s the hardest to debunk,” says Ashok, the Global Head of Digital Workplace at TCS. He believes that inaccurate notions about Indian cooking has led people to accept advice from random individuals over credible institutions, scientific process and research that’s been peer-reviewed and challenged multiple times. The negativity bias makes such content go viral while facts get lost in the noise.

Apart from fighting the fallacy that microwave cooking destroys nutrition (it does not; the equipment has low energy radiation, which only heats water, and as a result, you get food with the least loss of micronutrients compared to other forms of cooking) or the misapprehension around refrigerated food being unhealthy (in an airtight container, most cooked food will at least last two-three days and even up to a week in some cases. In the freezer, food will last up to six months—assuming no power cuts—because all biological activity slows down decrease in temperature), the biggest advice Ashok has to offer is: “Don’t let influencers tell you what you should or shouldn’t do unless they can back it up with science.”

Leisha Patidar
Known for: Beauty and skincare tips, tricks and tutorials
Follower count: 858K followers on Instagram popular myth-busting video:‘Homegrown brands can be as good as international ones. Putting together a look using the same’

Loud, unapologetic troopers

Bengaluru-based lifestyle content creator Simran Balar Jain, with a massive following of 1.2M on Instagram, is known for her outspokenness in matters of social, cultural and sexual taboos. When she decided to educate viewers on the rights of unmarried couples to privacy, she faced severe backlash. But Jain, who is pursuing a sex education course from Learnsextherapy, couldn’t be silenced. Her voice has since emerged as a rare force of honesty that speaks with abandon in a space marked by hesitation. “There is a gross misinterpretation in the realm of women’s sexuality, especially about intricacies of an orgasm, libido variance, body image concerns, notions of virginity and the normalisation of pain during intercourse,” she says, adding that the problem is compounded by cookie-cutter advice dispensed on the internet that fail to recognise the unique demands of a woman’s journey.  

Ambala-based jewellery designer Jyoti Kansal found herself harbouring grave misconceptions about her own sexual performance. The ideas were based on what she heard from a bunch of international influencers who portrayed idealised versions of sexual pleasure, perpetuating faulty notions that pain and discomfort during intercourse was normal, achieving multiple orgasms was always possible, and that being available for your partner at all times leads to a better sex life. “When I tried to mirror their narratives, I felt lost and inadequate, wondering why there was no conversation about the real factors that influenced sexual experience: the ebb and flow of desire, effective communication, the remnants of past experiences, the presence or absence of confidence, and the delicate navigation of personal boundaries,” says Kansal.

Money matters

Just like women’s sexuality, the space of personal finance too is rife with one-size-fits-all approaches and sweeping assumptions and generalisations. De-influencers such as Shreyaa Kapoor, who is a former management consultant at Bain with training in risk advisory from Deloitte, are dedicated to changing the narrative. “Discussions on money management, savings and asset-building, particularly for women, have been absent from public discourse. The lack of female role models in the digital space has made matters worse. Add to that the complexity of financial jargon used in the limited channels that do exist,” says Kapoor, with 657K followers on Instagram, who opts for storytelling, personal anecdotes, humour, visual aids, relatable analogies  and plain language to break down financial concepts.

Despite using all the tools to engage audiences, challenges persist. The mismatch of expectation between audiences and creators remains gaping, as transforming finance-related content into entertaining reels is not always possible. The limitation makes it difficult to garner the same kind of viewership as lifestyle content. “As we are obliged to adhere to several guidelines, our creative freedom too is restricted. Due to the risks involved in financial matters, the subject requires a more serious handling and cannot be made fun or glamorous at all times. Nevertheless, there exists an undeniable need for well-informed finance creators, especially in a country like India where many lack access to formal education and are, therefore, more prone to making uninformed decisions,” says Delhi-based former financial risk advisor at Deloitte and a certified research analyst, Himani Chaudhary, with a following of 695K on Instagram.

It’s not just about managing big investments, saving for home ownership or having an emergency fund. Navigating the world of everyday finance is equally important, according to content creator Anushka Rathod from Surat (825K followers on Instagram), who believes there are too many influencers promoting quick fixes and ‘instant wealth solutions’ instead of guiding viewers about budgeting, preparing for unexpected events, management of financial stress, avoiding emotional overspending, etc. “It’s about serving people with unbiased advice and sincere recommendations that influencers motivated by brand collaborations and advertorials cannot deliver,” says Rathod, a postgraduate in tax management, who has worked in area equity research and investment banking. Even though she regularly clears misconceptions, the latest is that jewellery is a great investment. “Jewellery should be regarded as a luxury item, not an investment. The manufacturing costs range from 10 percent to 25 percent, which is a notable expenditure. Therefore, enjoy it as a splurge item if you must buy it, but for investment purposes, gold, sovereign gold bonds and gold ETFs are much better options than physical jewellery,” she says.

Ethics first

The de-influencing movement emerged when popular TikTok beauty influencer Mikayla Nogueira was lambasted for wearing fake eyelashes, while promoting mascara from a well-known brand, as part of a paid assignment. When monetary benefits become the motivation, ethical considerations don’t make it to the table. “There are many within the community who don’t disclose sponsorships, giving the impression that the products being recommended are organically reviewed, yet others endorse products without vetting them,” says Mumbai-based beauty and fashion digital creator Prableen Kaur Bhomrah, who prides herself in being a no-filter girl. With 342K followers, she is one of the few Instagrammers who don’t use face or body morphing filters, setting an ethical standard for content creation.

Former Miss India Shweta Vijay, based out of the UK, too, is a crusader against false claims. She has been knocking the bottom out of influencers and brands that exaggerate a product long before de-influencing even had a name. Years later, she continues the same, albeit with more fervour. In her recent video titled, ‘Stop buying viral-hyped beauty bestsellers that aren’t worth the money! Worst of 2023’, Vijay holds up a tub of a face gel by a prominent skincare brand. While her counterparts praised the moisturiser to high heavens, the tenacious Vijay spoke about its side-effects prioritising consumer safety.

This is just one of the many instances when she has held a brand accountable; Vijay was the first YouTuber to call out beauty giant Nykaa a few years ago for its customer service, when several of her followers criticised it for allegedly sending fake products. Recently, she even called out the popular Pillow Talk (original) lipstick from the iconic makeup brand Charlotte Tilbury (hyped after actor Alia Bhatt wore it on her wedding) for being a shade that doesn’t flatter the Indian skin tone. For a person who refuses to read out brand scripts, unless the content aligns with her values, she has rocked many boats. “I am paying the price that comes with being honest as I value the trust of my community and support of responsible brands far more than inorganic success,” says Vijay, who has 210K subscribers on YouTube.

“The ruthless promotion of trend-driven products and services nudges viewers to buy and discard impulsively. The social pressure of keeping up not only creates stress and anxiety among youngsters, but it also leads to a vicious cycle of wastage and environmental damage,” says Dehradun-based digital creator Himadri Patel, who has 906K subscribers on YouTube. “Influencers are not the problem; the way some of them influence is. The idea is to inculcate a more conscientious approach to content and educating audiences about responsible consumer behaviour, which most don’t do,” she says.

A Mumbai-based anti-influencer with 437K followers on Instagram, who did not wish to be named, adds how influencers propagate the toxic ‘must-have’ culture. “It is manipulation at its best,” she says. “Come to think of it, do you need uber-expensive Egyptian cotton pyjamas to sleep better as suggested by a fashion influencer recently, or can a gimmicky skincare tool help you combat acne, or a pretty, diamond-encrusted mason be the perfect reminder to stay hydrated?” she asks.

Popular digital creator Leisha Patidar from Mumbai, with 858K followers on Instagram, on the other hand, is fighting a different battle: to break the illusion of perfection that plagues the influencer industry. She does this by educating her followers about the negative impact of the halo effect (a type of cognitive bias towards the positive attributes of an influencer) that creates disconnection from reality. “The viewer buys into the idealised version of an influencer’s life, believing it to be a whole truth, reinforcing cultural and social prejudices and the harmful behaviours associated with them,” she says, adding that honesty and transparency are the first steps to breaking free from the dangers of this effect.

“The misinformation machinery is so well-oiled that the rise of a realistic counterforce was a necessary antidote. It is exhausting and a thankless job, but it is important because scientifically accurate information is like a fire-tipped arrow that melts buttered falsifications,” says Philips. In the ever-evolving world of influencing, de-influencing is tilling the social media landscape to cultivate a more purpose-driven and ethically-centred harvest. Until it gains stronger ground and not just be a fleeting trend, Vijay says, “We’ve seen the power of influence; it’s now time to witness the might of de-influence.”

The phenomenon emerged in beauty content and moved to the health, finance, travel and lifestyle categories, largely as a response to increasing misinformation, brand propaganda, consumerism and exploitative marketing tactics

The popular ‘accountability challenge’ was a result of de-influencers encouraging creators to make responsible content. De-influencing has led to the rise of ‘slow content’ that prioritises quality over fleeting trends. De-influencing has got close to 730 million views on TikTok.

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