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'This is garbage': Step aside, influencers — we're now in the era of de-influencing

Some TikTok creators have embraced the de-influencer movement, like Diana Wiebe, seen in a screenshot here, who goes by the TikTok handle @depressiondotgov and critiques social media influencing.
Some TikTok creators have embraced the de-influencer movement, like Diana Wiebe, seen in a screenshot here, who goes by the TikTok handle @depressiondotgov and critiques social media influencing.

In the early days of the pandemic, Diana Wiebe spent a lot of time scrolling through Instagram and TikTok — and she started to notice something.

"I got influenced mostly by skin care stuff," she recalls. "I'd watch an influencer, and I'd be like, 'OK, yeah. This worked for them. I trust their opinion. Add to cart.'"

After a while, Wiebe began to realize just how much money she was spending on stuff she saw being pushed on social media. That's when she knew things had to change.

Social media influencers aren't new. But over the last few years, another trend has emerged: de-influencing. What started as a backlash to advertising could now have a surprising and real-world impact on the environment.

A rejection of influencer culture

The world of influencing is pretty simple.

Companies from the likes of Airbnb to Amazon to Louis Vuitton pay people with a lot of followers on social media to promote their products. These creators then make content, typically videos, where they recommend the products and services, often adding a discount code their followers can use to sweeten the deal.

"They do it kind of more in the guise of being your friend or being relatable," Wiebe said.

It has evolved over time and can now include things like the "come shopping with me" trend that emulates the feeling of casually shopping with a friend. The influencers film themselves walking around stores and filling their carts with clothing, makeup, cute little bowls for your ramen noodles and, of course, Stanley cups.

"They film their hands, and they throw stuff kind of willy-nilly in the cart," Wiebe said. "I just kept saying stuff like ... 'This is garbage. Like, why is this person buying this?'"

So Wiebe began to post her own videos on TikTok. Her videos don't influence; rather, they seek to de-influence. And she is one of many who have found a foothold in the last few years as the #deinfluencing hashtag on TikTok has racked up more than 1.5 billion views.

De-influencing encourages people to buy less stuff and instead use what they already have.

"Initially I saw the trend as something that was kind of like a response to the fatigue of influencing, of this constant messaging of buy, buy, buy," said content creator Christina Mychaskiw.

Mychaskiw defines herself as a former shopaholic who at one point had more than $120,000 in student loan debt. Even before the term "de-influencing" trended on TikTok, she was making videos about mindful spending and consumerist culture.

Mychaskiw said that when she was younger, she watched videos that normalized overconsumption — videos like shopping hauls, where people show off what they have bought, sometimes dozens of pieces at once.

"I think when you watch those things over and over again and you continuously see people being like, 'Oh, I just picked this up and I bought this,' and the quantities that people bought ... it kind of gives you this license to feel like, 'Oh, I can do that too,'" she said.

"It was sort of a refreshing take to see, 'Hey, this thing didn't change my life. This thing didn't work the way it was supposed to. It didn't live up to the hype. Save your money.'"

The feeling of de-influencing is refreshing for many. NPR asked readers about their relationship with social media and heard from dozens of people who relayed being fed up with constant advertising on social media, feeling buyer's remorse after following an influencer's recommendation or feeling forced to become influencers themselves.

Heidi Kaluza falls into that last camp, as an influencer who now supports de-influencing.

When she first came onto the scene, Kaluza remembers how some clothing brands would send her up to 20 items a month in various sizes. On top of that, she said her reviews didn't always feel genuine.

"They're kind of forcing me to engage in wearing these clothes and promoting them and only saying good things about them and never critiquing," she said.

"I see [de-influencing] as a growing movement. I think it's going to be a foundational aspect of our society."

That's not to say the movement has been entirely pure.

"People saw it as just another trend for them to hop on and figure out how they can capitalize on it and use consumerism to capitalize on de-influencing," said lifestyle content creator Mikayla Farwig.

"They were like, 'Hey, I'm going to de-influence you from this lip gloss because this lip gloss is $42. How about you buy this $10 lip gloss instead?'

"It was still promoting this overconsumption."

And a focus on overconsumption is where the de-influencing movement is heading now. It has evolved from a response to mass advertising to a more nuanced discussion around overconsumption. And its adherents say de-influencing could have a positive effect on the environment.

De-influencing's relationship with the environment

With an online platform, today's de-influencers are spreading a deeper message to their followers about how to live sustainably in a way that helps the planet.

They point to the plastic packaging encasing products hawked online, a small amount of which actually gets recycled; the shipping; and the fact that a lot of these products end up in landfills or being burned, which contributes to global greenhouse gas emissions.

The stakes are high when it comes to the rapid consumption of goods and services, which can make people feel powerless, said Aja Barber, but she adds that talking about the issue is the first step for consumers.

"If you can get people to start thinking about the things that they buy, they start thinking about a lot of the bigger topics as well," she said.

Barber is author of the book Consumed: The Need for Collective Change. She's kind of the original de-influencer, having spent years speaking to issues of sustainability in the context of fast fashion.

"The conversation about fast fashion and consumer goods, I find it's like a gateway," she said. "People are like, 'Oh, it's just a frivolous dress,' and then they start to learn a little bit more about what's behind it ... and it just keeps going. Before you know it, you're like me and you have a compost and you won't shut up about it."

This is the point where the de-influencing movement comes full circle and back to influencing — only, with a twist.

"This isn't just about de-influencing. This is about using your influence in the right way," said Solitaire Townsend, a sustainability expert and co-founder of the change agency Futerra.

She has spent years working with communities, brands and even content creators to communicate environmental issues to wider audiences.

Townsend said that the de-influencing trend describes something that has been discussed for years — living more sustainably — and that the people with a lot of social media followers have an "enormous outside ability to help us live more sustainably."

"We've known for decades that the number one influence on your behaviors is your friends and family. More than advertising, more than anything governments tell you to do, more than anything that educators tell you to do," she said.

"It turns out we have a close relationship with creators. We hold them in that same friends-and-family bubble."

Townsend's company worked with Unilever on research that looks at the role of influencer content in impacting sustainable choices. The findings, released in 2023, showed that 83% of respondents think TikTok and Instagram are good places to get advice about how to live sustainably and that 75% are more likely to change their behavior in a direction that is good for the environment after watching social media content.

"Most of us who are following [influencers] really want them to help us with this. We want them to model these behaviors," she said.

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Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.