Virtual Influencers, Real Power?

Virtual influencers can still hold very real influence - and so can the people who create them.
12 August 2022

A real social media influencer. As far as we know…

Social media influencers are a phenomenon that grew out of the rise of social media itself. Where in previous generations, people who had achieved things – sports stars, actors, and the like – would be paid huge sums of money to endorse products in print ads, on radio, and on TV. When the notion of social media arose, and suddenly there was ‘citizen content,’ made by people with no necessary skills or experience, the shift of at least some of that advertising money to those who were talking about sellable subjects became not only inevitable but a highly intelligent part of the marketing strategy of many companies. Attaching a company’s name, and its dollars to prominent or rising social media influencers became good business sense, and certainly as late as 2021, 48% of marketers were running influencer campaigns. That year, interest in backing TikTok influencers particularly rose overall by 325%, according to the State of Influencer Marketing report.

So far, so ordinary. As we say, companies have been paying well-regarded figures to say good things about their products for a hundred years. But since 2020, South Korea has taken the influencer game to a whole new, arguably extra-cynical, arguably dangerous level.

Rozy is a South Korean influencer with over 130,000 Instagram followers. Like many Instagram influencers, her timeline is full of posed, fashion, filtered shots, and shots of her holidays in other countries. She gives the impression of being a young woman (to coin a phrase) ‘living her best life.’ And with her fashion impeccably on trend, her look always aspirational and fashion-forward quirky, it should be entirely understandable that she’s garnered such an impressive base of followers. Nor should it especially surprise us that Rozy has raked in profits from brand deals and sponsorship. She’s participated in virtual runway fashion events, and she’s released two singles.

The Land of Fake Believe

Except Rozy is in no sense… real. She’s what’s known as a ‘virtual human,’ and by extension, a ‘virtual influencer.’ And she’s also in no sense alone. There are a growing number of virtual influencers operating in South Korea – a combination of deepfake, AI, robotics, and when needed, as when she models clothes, a real human, over which her face is superimposed by her ‘creators’ at Sidus Studio X.

The pure technology behind Rozy and her army of fellow virtual influencers is of course, not new. It’s the stuff of blockbuster movies and bestselling games. But it’s only been used to create virtual influencers in the last few years.

The temptation is to say “So what? Imaging technology and robotics are at a stage where they can create convincing, realistic humans that don’t exist, big deal.”

In some respects, nothing has changed – influencers get deals and money to promote companies’ products, so that people will buy them. If the influencer happens to be an entirely constructed by a company, rather than simply to be a self-constructed conceit, who cares, and who loses?

The Failure of Agency

Firstly, it takes the agency away from an individual influencer if a company can simply create a lifelike avatar of perfection, and then have it spout whatever copy the company gives it, with all the sincerity of a genuine enthusiast. Human influencers, even those who are blatantly only in it for the money and the deals, at least have the opportunity to turn down a sponsorship if it doesn’t feel right to them, and they have the capacity to make a judgment call on how and to what degree they praise, review, or even criticise products.

With a virtual influencer, there’s no guarantee of neutrality because it is exactly what the company says it is – virtual, created, believable but fake. So, whatever copy the company gives Rozy and her virtual sisterhood to say, they’ll say it. And yes, to some extent the armies of followers who are swayed by the virtual assistants know they’re fake – but only to some extent. Rozy frequently gets questions to her Instagram feed about whether she’s human, robotic, or AI, meaning there’s an uncanny valley to her and her sisters that means people who are influenced by her can believe she’s a real human being with real opinions of her own – which is where the value of those opinions is vested.

The Picture of Perfection

That uncanny valley is at least partly caused by the fact that, created by CGI as they are, these virtual influencers are custom designed to match the pinnacle of beauty standards in the country where they operate. There’s not a blemish, not an imperfection, nothing – again, it’s arguable that human influencers use filters to achieve much the same effect, but there have already been concerns raised in South Korea about the impossible physical standards that are easily created in CGI, but to which young women watching Rozy live her perfect life might easily despair of ever achieving.

Who Influences the Influencers?

All of which would be worrying enough without the rise of a new trend on social media, where either foreign competitor companies, or domestic, less successful companies, have begun using Russian bot-farm style tactics to spread rumors, misinformation, disinformation, and plain old-fashioned lies about successful competitors in an attempt to bring them down.

And while the power of social media lies in its echo chamber effect, magnifying the effect of so-called ‘fake news’ exponentially, and spreading it faster than anything could manage in the real world, the potential to reach a lot more people, and to spread such disinformation even faster still, while making it instantly a hundred times more credible, lies in the power to have a realistic human face and voice repeat it.

The Alex Jones Digression

Take the case of Alex Jones and the Sandy Hook ‘hoax’ claims. Alex Jones is of course a real human being, rather than a robot. But he had the same sort of siloed, echo chamber audience as a social media influencer has. The rumor of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in 2012 being a ‘hoax’ was not original to Alex Jones – he didn’t invent the idea, and the likelihood is that it would have been scorned by most right-thinking people as not only factually bankrupt but morally bankrupt within a short while. But Jones took up the conspiracy theory, blessed it with his approval, and shot it straight down the camera lens at his highly influenced audience. He made it a Thing, and kept it a Thing, until in August 2022, he was taken to court and ordered to pay a bankrupting sum in reparation to the parents of the Sandy Hook children.

Having a believable face and a sincere voice can turn any rumor into an article of reality, be it “Take Back Control” in the UK or “Make America Great Again” in the US. The danger inherent in virtual influencers is less about the here and now, with young South Korean virtual women, and more about the potential of the amalgamated technology tomorrow.

If the favorite technology influencers of the next generation are virtual, rather than human, and the practice of waging corporate disinformation wars across social media becomes normal practice, then virtual influencers could be the best weapons in the proxy wars for commercial dominance. They’ll be persuasive, human-like, enthusiastic, and above all, believable. Which will be exactly the problem if they’re weaponized to poison your potential clients’ minds against your company.