Too Powerful? How Social Media Influencers Shape Public Opinion and Why You Need to Care

Are social media influencers too powerful? Do they hold too much influencer on communities around the world?

Matt By Matt
8 Min Read

Social media influencers have risen as a powerful force in the digital landscape.

These digital trailblazers amass extensive followings across platforms like Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok, shaping the collective consciousness. Their capacity to influence public perception represents a pivotal shift in the current era’s definition of influence and public figures.

This shift from traditional to digital influencers signifies more than a change in the medium. It mirrors a profound transformation in the way information is consumed, used and understood.

By weaving personal narratives, stories, and experiences into their overall message, influencers have used social media algorithms to grow massive followings.

Influencers don’t just mirror public consciousness—they actively mould it.

92 percent of consumers around the world say they trust earned media, such as recommendations from friends and family, above all other forms of advertising

Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising report

Psychological Impact on Communities

Influencers shape our world in subtle yet profound ways, leveraging deep-rooted psychological principles, knowingly or unknowingly.

Their strategies rest on three pillars: social proof, parasocial relationships, and the halo effect, each playing a unique role in how we perceive and interact with online and social media content.

These elements form a potent mix of influencing behaviours and opinions across a global audience, far beyond entertainment.

83% of consumers recommend a brand they follow on social to friends and family.

Sproutsocial

Social Proof

Social Proof is a psychological phenomenon in which people mirror the actions and opinions of others, under the assumption that those actions reflect the correct behavior.

Influencers, by their substantial followings, become benchmarks for social proof.

When an influencer advocates for a cause, recommends a product, or adopts a certain stance on an issue, their audience will likely perceive that action as the ‘correct’ one.

Data on influencer reach indicates that social proof is magnified when individuals have large and engaged followings.

For instance, a Nielsen study showed that 92% of people trust earned media, such as recommendations from influencers, more than other forms of advertising.

 

Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships, where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party, the persona, is completely unaware of the other’s existence.

National Register of Health Service Psychologists

Parasocial Relationships 

Parasocial relationships introduce a nuanced layer of influence.

These one-sided bonds, where followers feel a personal connection to influencers they’ve never met, amplify the impact of every post, tweet, or video.

This connection turns influencers into trusted figures, almost friends, whose recommendations and viewpoints carry weight akin to a close acquaintance’s.

Influencers create an illusion of friendship and intimacy through consistent and personalised content.

This perceived closeness means that when an influencer expresses concern about environmental degradation or social injustice, or recommends a product, their audience is more likely to care, as if a friend were talking to them.

The Halo Effect

The halo effect complements these dynamics, lending credibility to influencers beyond their expertise. If an influencer is skilled in one area, followers often presume competence in other domains as well, making their opinions on various subjects highly persuasive.

This psychological shortcut enables influencers to sway public opinion on matters ranging from consumer products to social issues, with their endorsement serving as a powerful seal of approval.

Followers associate the influencer’s expertise in one area with trustworthiness in another, compelling their endorsements of causes.

Each of these psychological underpinnings helps to explain the large-scale impact influencers can have on public consciousness. The reach of influencers is a crucial element to consider.

On platforms like Instagram, a single post from a major influencer can garner millions of views within hours.

YouTube vloggers who discuss environmental issues or social causes in their videos often see those videos shared and discussed across various platforms, further extending their reach.

Evidence and Case Studies

It’s difficult to question influencers’ impact on purchasing decisions. However, we can underscore influencers’ impact on environmental or social causes through evidence.

Mr Beast

An exemplary illustration is the #TeamTrees campaign initiated by YouTuber MrBeast in collaboration with the Arbor Day Foundation.

The campaign aimed to raise $20 million to plant 20 million trees by 2020. Leveraging the reach of influencers across YouTube, the campaign quickly went viral, attracting donations from influencers’ audiences, fans, and even celebrities.

 

The campaign successfully raised funds, showcasing the tangible impact influencers can have when rallying their audiences for a positive cause.

Leonardo DiCaprio

Another case is the significant influence of actor Leonardo DiCaprio, a celebrity influencer and environmental activist, who uses his platform to address climate change. At the time of writing, he has 62.2m followers on Instagram.

Leonardo’s documentary, ‘Before the Flood,’ reached millions of viewers globally, influencing public discourse on the subject.

His Instagram posts about environmental conservation often receive hundreds of thousands of engagements, suggesting a significant impact on the audience’s environmental consciousness.

Greta Thunberg

Lastly, the impact of Swedish influencer and activist Greta Thunberg illustrates how influencers can serve as catalysts for social change.

Her Fridays for Future movement began with a single act of protest, yet due to her ability to communicate her message through social media effectively, it has mobilised students worldwide to participate in climate strikes.

The world is a better place for her work. She regularly attracts mainstream news coverage worldwide on environmental issues, bringing issues to light that the general public would otherwise never hear about.

The impact is measurable. The hashtag #FridaysForFuture has amassed millions of impressions, catalysing student activism on a global scale.

Combining these psychological strategies with the unprecedented reach afforded by social media platforms has positioned influencers as formidable agents of public opinion, particularly in environmental and social advocacy.

Do social media influencers hold too much power?

Absolutely not.

The Earth’s future depends on their actions, and their ability to raise their voices above the the stale and corrupt governments in many countries worldwide.

Photo credits: Colin Chou (Leonardo DiCaprio), Fidias (MrBeast), Anders Hellberg (Greta Thunberg).

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By Matt
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I'm the Creative Director at Bona Parle. I'm also a freelance portrait and headshot photographer, award-winning filmmaker, film Colourist and a multi-award winning LGBTQ+ human rights campaigner. For part of my week I lead a successful UK-based charity that brings families closer to together.