Zara McDermott doesn’t like the term ‘influencer’. “People look down on it,” the 24-year-old model and former Love Island contestant tells me, distancing herself from the label – and it’s easy to see why. We’re speaking not long after a group of Instagrammers were widely criticised for exploiting an ‘essential work’ loophole to send poolside pictures from Dubai while the rest of us civilians stayed at home, following Covid restrictions. Now is not a great time to tell people you make your money by harnessing a gargantuan social media following.
But that’s the negative side of the industry. There is a growing trend for influencers to use their platforms to promote positive change in the real, unfiltered world. And McDermott is one such example. While her Instagram page shows that she’s not afraid to post a selfie, she’s increasingly using her 1.5 million-strong following to speak out against revenge porn, the sharing of explicit images without consent. The influencer-turned-activist has teamed up with Refuge’s The Naked Threat campaign, to push for Parliament to criminalise the threat of revenge porn. While the practice itself is illegal, there is currently no law against the threat of doing so.
McDermott’s own experience of revenge porn informs her new BBC documentary on the subject. “It was horrific – awful,” she says, recalling the moment when, as a 14-year-old, a classmate pressured her into sending him an explicit picture. “I was being bullied quite badly, and I thought this guy, who was popular, would give me that boost and help to stop the bullying that I was experiencing.” By the next day, the image had been shared not just throughout her school, but across her town. McDermott says her school’s response was to exclude her for a few days, blaming her for the incident, while the boy who shared the image faced no consequences.
Seven years later, naked pictures McDermott had sent before entering Love Island were again distributed without her consent, this time across the internet. McDermott says she noticed a change in reaction the second time around. While her own sense of shame at having private photos publicly distributed was no less intense, “for the first time I was being referred to as a ‘victim’.” It was as though society had finally realised where the blame should lie in such situations.
That realisation gave McDermott a new found confidence that would enable her to “talk openly” about revenge porn, and ultimately explore the subject on television. McDermott, a former Department for Education policy advisor, is keen for her documentary to be shown in school PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education) lessons. She says she wants to “start those conversations, not only in schools, but between parents and their children, and grandparents and their grandchildren.” She hopes to inspire young people to “educate themselves on Government policy,” and says it’s a field she would love to return to.
But for now, that sizeable social media following gives her ample levers to pull. “[Influencers] have the ability to connect with young people, and people in general,” she explains. “We offer the advice and that insight that the Government wouldn’t necessarily be able to get otherwise.”
The relationship between influencers and Government can be symbiotic. Last month, Full Fact found that £63,000 was spent paying social media stars to promote Test and Trace. Similarly, the Cabinet Office was recently seen recruiting for a ‘Relationship Manager’ to work with ‘high profile influencers’ ahead of the UK’s climate change summit. As Hester Bates, from marketing platform Influencer.com, puts it, influencers offer impressive reach: “Why would the Government not jump on that?”
McDermott is not the only social media figure whose advocacy is reaching Westminster. Others include campaigner and journalist Anna Whitehouse (aka Mother Pukka), who has been lobbying the Government to change the law around flexible working. And there’s Dr Alex George, A&E doctor and McDermott’s fellow Love Islander, who was recently appointed the Government’s Youth Mental Health Ambassador. He began campaigning on the topic after his brother, Llŷr, died by suicide last year.
George is also part of a growing ‘med-fluencer’ movement, made up of medical professionals using social media to share health advice and combat the spread of misinformation. On TikTok, George posts bitesized clips about general health, Covid, vaccines and mental wellbeing.
McDermott says she has lost contact with George since their time on Love Island together, but emphasises that he is “amazing”, adding: “He’s making a similar impact to the one that I aspire to make.”
So do influencers have a duty to fight for social causes, in a similar guise? McDermott responds cautiously. While she thinks it’s important “to make a difference for the better,” she is adamant that influencer-activists have “a huge duty” to “be as educated as [they] possibly can be on that topic”. In other words, they need to do their research if we are to take them as credible, or they run the risk of being labelled social media mercenaries. Last summer, for example, some US influencers were accused of treating Black Lives Matter protests “like [the music festival] Coachella” and using the movement for self-promotion.
McDermott shows what happens when you use your following for good. As she puts it: “Knowing you’re making a really positive difference, I don’t think that feeling can be matched.”
Zara McDermott: Revenge Porn is available on BBC Three and BBC iPlayer