DUBAI: With 1 million followers, Busra Duran’s Instagram presence is nothing short of a fairytale. From traveling through Moscow to sipping drinks in Dubai, Duran is living the life of a classic luxury influencer in the Middle East.
In fact, it is why she moved from Turkey to Dubai. “This is where the big brands are,” her husband Gokhan Gunduz told The Guardian. “She’s showing off her lifestyle in Dubai, to attract people. It’s not just Busra who benefits — Dubai benefits too.”
Duran is, of course, one of the many social media influencers whose accounts are flooded with pictures and videos of exotic locations, fancy restaurants, the latest beauty treatments, and so on.
The same is true for many Lebanese influencers whose Instagram accounts tell stories of travel, food, beauty, and shopping. There is, of course, no mention of closed businesses, lost jobs, ill health, or abandoned homes. The reality of the country’s condition is betrayed by its social media accounts.
Lebanon’s economy contracted by 20 percent in 2020, according to data from the World Bank, and 35 percent of businesses shut down stores or closed branches in 2021, according to the Beirut Traders Association.
The Lebanese are a resilient people. Through bombings and assassinations, the country has survived, and its people have found success and happiness in Lebanon and other countries.
However, now, with the Lebanese pound trading on the black market at nearly 20 times its value two years ago, many are struggling to afford even basic necessities, let alone a holiday or fancy night out. The economic situation in the country is the worst it has been in more than 150 years. Prices have skyrocketed in Lebanon, which imports more than 80 percent of its basic goods.
But such stories are not posted on Instagram.
Flaunting wealth on social media can have a dire impact on the emotional and mental well-being of users — especially when people are struggling for basic necessities and businesses are shutting down.
Aditi Bhatia, a lecturer in psychology at Middlesex University Dubai, told Arab News: “At a time when many have suffered financial losses themselves, seeing wealth or luxury being flaunted on social media is likely to remind people of their own inadequacies and also create a false impression of their peer group.”
“We live in a world in which many people across the globe are without basic necessities or otherwise in need, and that’s an unfortunate reality in both good times and bad,” said Dubai-based influencer Becky Jefferies. “But I don’t see social media as a cause — or solution — to economic challenges on a micro or macro level.”
“That said, I do feel that influencers should assume a certain level of responsibility when it comes to how they utilize their personal platforms. Many of them have earned the trust of a mass audience and should therefore be mindful about doing the right thing, such as not tolerating or spreading hate, or not feeding into unrealistic beauty standards,” Jefferies added.
Despite several influencers and celebrities trying to show the reality of life on social media, much of the content tends to highlight the good parts of their lives, not the bad. “People tend to selectively share a higher number of personal successes online than failures,” Bhatia said.
She noted that the social comparison theory suggested “that humans have an innate need to compare themselves with others, in order to make sense of their own abilities and social standing.”
According to the theory, people either made upward comparisons by comparing themselves to those they considered better or more successful, or downward comparisons by comparing themselves to those they felt were worse off or less successful.
“Individuals who tend to make more upward social comparisons can experience a range of negative mental health effects such as low self-esteem, increased stress, self-harm, depressive symptoms, and loneliness,” Bhatia added.
In February last year, Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, announced it had banned almost 4,000 users for deliberately showing off their wealth. In November, Xiaohongshu, an app similar to Instagram, said its team had disciplined 240 accounts since May for posting “wealth-bragging content.”
The moves are part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s nationwide effort to redistribute wealth. Authorities have ordered social media platforms to remove any content that flaunts wealth, although the standards for determining content that qualifies are vague.
Speaking at a news conference last year, Zhang Yongjun, a senior official at China’s cyberspace administration, said: “The standard is the effect the content has. Can the spread of this content inspire people to be healthy, ambitious, and work harder for a beautiful life? Or does it cater to people’s vulgar desires?”
Despite the potential ill-effects of flaunting wealth on social media, regional authorities seem unlikely to regulate such content.
Fiona Robertson, partner, head of Cedar White Bradley’s media and technology practice, said: “China doesn’t allow a lot of content that we would consider benign. And that’s just the very controlling nature of the Chinese government, which we don’t have here.”
She pointed out that every country and government had its “thing” when it came to media regulation.
“The UK, for example, is very big on defamation. In this region, privacy is a big thing and breaching that privacy is taken very seriously. In the US, they take nudity in mainstream media very seriously.
“It’s just common worldwide and everyone has these rules that they have to comply with,” she added.
The region does have other rules, however, that social media influencers are expected to comply with. Last year, a Bangladeshi waiter in Dubai was sentenced to six months in prison after he added fake gunshots to a TikTok video.
Soon after, a social media influencer was jailed for three months and fined 100,000 Emirati dirhams ($27,225) following video footage that showed him driving a luxury vehicle at more than 205 kilometers an hour in Abu Dhabi. The passenger who recorded him also received a similar fine and both men were suspended from driving for six months and the car and their phones were confiscated. They were also banned from using their social media accounts for six months.
The Commercial Compliance and Consumer Protection sector in Dubai Economy fined a car showroom last October for a misleading campaign that offered cars with special specifications, benefits, and gifts for consumers buying through a social media influencer.
“Dubai Economy holds the trader responsible for any misleading campaign found on the social media account of the company or conducted through a social media promoter,” the CCCP said in a statement.
Robertson said that liability often lay with the brand that the influencer was working with, an important consideration when brands used foreign influencers. “The influencers themselves are not licensed underneath our local laws so effectively, they haven’t necessarily signed up to the compliance that the brands themselves should and would have,” she added.
Around 85 percent of luxury consumers use social media, with each using an average of three platforms, according to a Deloitte study. It is no surprise then that social media plays a huge role for luxury brands, just like influencers play a huge role within social media.
“It’s important to keep in mind that many influential social accounts are just another medium for brands to reach people,” said Jefferies. “Faulting influencers for posting about their experiences would arguably be like denouncing brands for advertising premium goods and services.
“The fact that social media can encourage audiences to get out of their houses and try that new restaurant, shop at that new local boutique, or travel to that cool destination, it’s a positive thing — including for the economy,” added Jefferies.
On TikTok, for instance, users like to share specifics on what they are buying and make recommendations to their audiences leading to the hashtag #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt, which amassed 4.6 billion views in 2021.
In the US alone, Generation Zs and millennials represent approximately $350 billion of spending power, according to management consulting firm McKinsey. These younger consumer groups — the biggest users of social media — have unprecedentedly higher spending power today. And while that may not be reflected in the world’s economies, it is on social media.
“Social media today has evolved to serve many roles beyond connecting people and providing a source of entertainment, one of which is giving individuals a voice and enabling access to information that could otherwise be censored, carefully spun, or filtered out by traditional news outlets,” said Jefferies.
She added: “Some influential users choose to use their platform in a positive way and some don’t. If some followers find certain types of content to be offensive or tone-deaf, they have the freedom to unfollow, just like we all have the freedom to share or say anything (in accordance with each platform’s respective community guidelines) — and that’s the beauty of social media.”