The Unspoken Power Dynamics Behind Influencers

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Last month, an Insider article exposed popular YouTuber David Dobrik’s role in an instance of sexual violence in 2018. Dobrik was seen filming, enabling, and even encouraging the perpetrator, Dominyakas Zeglaitis, throughout his video. If you’re like me (i.e. someone  trying desperately to grapple with entering into their 20s while still spending too many hours on TikTok), you’re probably only vaguely acquainted with David Dobrik’s content. Dobrik’s content caters to a fan base younger than most college-aged students. This is concerning given the fact that the majority of his videos are centered around flashing wealth—whether it be gifting extravagant cars to his friends, epilepsy-inducing montages on private jets, or lavish weekend trips to Vegas. This content is interspersed with drunk montages and celebrity cameos, which is evidently a far-cry from the lifestyles of the thirteen-year-olds that make up his fan base. 

I’ll be the first to admit that Dobrik’s videos are hedonistically entertaining. They’re sickeningly fun, a four-minute and twenty second escape every week into a life that is so far from my own. And that is also precisely the problem. As YouTube has only recently gained popularity in the past decade and “influencer” has just become a job title, we are still in the process of navigating an unexplored path of fame. Influencers are not quite celebrities, as they usually only appeal to a small, yet powerful demographic of teens. To the rest of the world, they’re kind of obsolete. However, to their small group of followers, they’re royalty. 

To the rest of the world, they’re kind of obsolete. However, to their small group of followers, they’re royalty. 

The faulty power dynamics that ensue from the influencer-fan relationship are certainly uncharted waters. Since influencers’ content is, for the most part, created by themselves, their viewers feel more connected to their idols. This makes the relationship perhaps feel equal from the standpoint of a viewer, making watching a video comparable to gossiping with a friend. They aren’t celebrities, they’re just like us! And, imaginably, that is exactly their goal in creating content. Perhaps I’m too optimistic to believe that the majority of influencers have positive intentions at heart, but for the most part, I find it somewhat admirable that these people pursue parasocial relationships in which they share such a large part of their lives to make a select few young fans feel less alone. But this shifted power dynamic can be easily taken advantage of, as in the case of Dobrik. According to the Insider article, the group of young women invited over were a mix of fans and non-fans, thus creating a confusing dynamic off the bat. Additionally, the women were young—all under the age of 21, compared with Dobrik’s friends who range from late 20s to early 40s. 

The power that influencers such as Zeglaitis or Dobrik hold cannot be ignored. They are both older, richer, and hold more social influence than their victims. They have a fan base that idealizes them to a fault, equipping them with a terrifying ability to tear the victims apart on command. This speaks to a wider conversation about sexual violence, which is rarely about sex and entirely about power. This is why marginalized groups, such as women of color or disabled people, are assaulted at much higher rates than groups in power. 

Although sexual violence and consent education should start at a young age, most students do not get exposed to this information until much later, if at all.

Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen an influencer being accused of sexual violence. Back in 2013, YouTuber Sam Pepper was accused of sexual violence. However, the Zeglaitis-Dobrik situation brings an enhanced power dynamic due to the vast breadth of his fanbase. Dobrik averages at about 18 million subscribers, many of which are fiercely loyal and frighteningly young. Although sexual violence and consent education should start at a young age, most students do not get exposed to this information until much later, if at all. Thus, the result of these recent accusations of sexual violence is children on the Internet commenting fierce support for Dobrik despite their lack of knowledge or comprehension of the event. These men are not Hollywood celebrities, so their fans feel as if they personally know them and, consequently, believe that they can do no wrong. 

To be completely frank, not much is likely to change for either Zeglaitis or Dobrik. Even if Zeglaitis does face legal consequences (despite our legal system rarely serving sexual violence survivors), his life will remain relatively the same. Dobrik will still have fans, albeit young fans that would support him blindly, and will eventually regain any sponsors that dropped him. Both of them will retain the money and power they’ve garnered through their few years in the spotlight. These dynamics are no different on our own campus. At McGill, it’s no secret that our sexual assault policy is sub-par and lacks adequate accommodation for survivors. Abusers maintain their high-level positions in university politics or clubs, while survivors are left to watch them succeed. 

Our culture treats survivors like they are a nuisance to the great possible successes of the men around us, and all we are left to do is watch. 

Herein lies the root of gendered sexual violence—for the men accused, a slap on the wrist is sufficient. For the women doing the accusing, their lives are broken down. Women will lose jobs, receive death threats, and spend years suffering through the trauma of assault. Our culture treats survivors like they are a nuisance to the great possible successes of the men around us, and all we are left to do is watch. 

I so greatly wish I was able to say that perhaps this case will be the one to change my pessimistic mind. I wish that the victim is able to find satisfaction and justice in whatever way she seeks. However, reality has shown to support power over truth or justice, and so we wait. These faulty power dynamics are not just in the content we consume online, but also in our own lives—whether it be in our campuses, our workplaces, or our friendships. Taking the time to recognize the inequalities that lead to these power imbalances is crucial to move forward and support survivors. 

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