UK Covid-19: As young people itch to leave lockdown, British health experts face a new challenge

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London (CNN) — When 21-year-old Daanish Hussain escaped London for Dubai over the New Year, he did what he does almost every day — reached for his phone, and documented his journey for his 550,000 followers on TikTok.

His video montage — which showed him swapping gray skies for sunshine in the United Arab Emirates — would draw the envy of many Brits, who have been banned from all but essential international travel for months.

But he was far from alone. In recent months, as the UK has sat frozen in lockdown, countless social media stars have posted content from beaches, shopping malls and hotels in Dubai and other favorite hotspots — many staying in the city despite its own restrictions beginning last month.

“I noticed that a lot of influencers went away — like, a lot of influencers,” Hussain told CNN, admitting he has seen some anger in the comments on his travel videos.

The travels of British influencers haven’t escaped the attention of the UK’s insatiable tabloids — screenshots of their foreign parties have been plastered underneath unflattering headlines for weeks.

And influencers don’t need to leave home to draw a backlash. Last month, a leading official at the National Health Service (NHS) was forced to urge people not to follow the advice of Gwyneth Paltrow, who wrote on her blog that she eased the effects of long Covid with a variety of superfoods like kombucha and kimchi.

Gwyneth Paltrow was criticized by British health care leaders after writing that certain superfoods helped her combat the effects of Covid-19.

Gwyneth Paltrow was criticized by British health care leaders after writing that certain superfoods helped her combat the effects of Covid-19.

Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/FilmMagic

But as young people become restless in lockdown, and as the vaccine rollout moves towards millennials, concern is growing from both inside and outside the influencing industry that their laissez-faire approach is rubbing off on followers.

“One of the reasons marketers use celebrities in their campaigns is because they know it has an impact because consumers, particularly young people, want to emulate their behaviours,” Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh, told CNN on email. “Social media influencers are today’s celebrities. They should recognise the responsibility that comes with that and work to promote public health, not undermine it.

“Influencers have got this huge pull — it’s in their very name, they influence,” added Keith Herman, whose company Trending Travel uses a network of influencers to promote locations around the world. “You’ve got to be careful how you use them.”

‘People look at you as a role model’

The NHS’s dismissal of Paltrow’s suggestions for dealing with Covid-19 was unexpected, and gave a glimpse at the exasperation among health leaders that young people are seeing the pandemic through the eyes of their online idols.
“Like the virus, misinformation carries across borders and it mutates and it evolves,” Stephen Powis, the medical director of NHS England, said after the actress suggested a particular diet had helped with the “brain fog” she experienced after having Covid-19.

“We need to take long Covid seriously and apply serious science. All influencers who use social media have a duty of responsibility and a duty of care around that.”

The UK’s Home Secretary Priti Patel had similarly railed against stars taking flights to sunnier locations. “We see plenty of influencers on social media showing off where they are in the world — mainly sunny places,” she said in Parliament, emphasizing that people should simply not be traveling.”

But if British media outlets are any indication, the admonishment has not filtered through the influencer community.

“NO SHAME: Brit influencers STILL promoting parties and moan people are ‘quick to judge’,” The Sun reported last month — one of a flurry of critical stories. A number of former stars of the popular British reality television show “Love Island” have been heavily criticized by some followers for posting poolside pictures from the city, while one fitness influencer caused a viral backlash after telling ITV she left lockdown for Dubai because her “job is to motivate people.”

A glance at the comments on any influencer currently relaxing abroad shows that not everyone feels the same way. “Hard at work! Hope you’re enjoying the pandemic,” one user wrote under a recent image from former reality TV star James Lock, showing him jet skiing in Dubai. Similar posts from influencers often see a flurry of messages in which fans say they will unfollow the star.

Hussain, who became one of Britain’s TikTok stars last year under his handle “its_danzy,” insisted the outrage is misplaced. “Some people don’t realize that social media’s a job,” he told CNN.

As for his own reasons to travel, Hussain said he “had to go for business reasons,” but also “we were in a lockdown and it was for my birthday.” He added: “And I knew it would be good for content as well. People love different countries and that.”

The university student is under no illusions that his sudden platform carries weight, including when his content runs counter to official advice. “People kind of look at you as a role model … when you have people value your point and value whatever you say, in a sense, I think that does kind of have an influence.”

And he admitted that he regretted, “to an extent,” posting about his travels. “You’re kind of telling people to do what the law’s telling you not to do.

“But if I was there for a business reason, or for influencing reasons … I wouldn’t say that you should go as well,” he added. “If an influencer doesn’t do what they have to do, they’re not going to make money.”

Others have been less relaxed.

Herman, whose Trending Travel uses a network of influencers to promote locations around the world, said he has taken the costly decision to tell stars not to post content from abroad.

“We realized quite early on that every time anybody posted, they were getting absolutely slaughtered on a sensitive subject,” he said. “I think some of them are more naive than anything else … We just said to all of the influencers that we had out (in holiday destinations): please don’t post.”

‘Followers are everything’

Elma Beganovich, an influencer with 700,000 Instagram followers who has capitalized on her social know-how to set up a marketing company, told CNN that online stars must stick to a crucial rule: “You can’t be tone deaf.

“Springing champagne at the pool at some exotic resort … that’s just not going to be socially acceptable,” Beganovich told CNN. “It’s become distasteful to say, look how ostentatious I am, when you know so many people have lost jobs or they have their loved ones hospitalized.”

Beganovich’s company, Amra & Elma, works with a host of influencers who have had to adjust their output during the pandemic, urging them to ditch the “you don’t belong here, we’re too exclusive for you” attitude that has become a feature of Instagram pages in recent years.
Dubai's skyline in February. The city welcomed a flurry of tourists from the UK and elsewhere at the start of the year, before a surge in Covid-19 cases forced it to tighten restrictions.

Dubai’s skyline in February. The city welcomed a flurry of tourists from the UK and elsewhere at the start of the year, before a surge in Covid-19 cases forced it to tighten restrictions.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

And failing to move with that trend could have a significant financial impact, she said, in an influencer marketing industry that is expected to be worth $15 billion by 2022 according to research firm Insider Intelligence.

“For influencers, followers are everything,” she said. “They may lose their contracts, or have them downsized or paused,” if brands consider their behavior out of touch.

More pressingly, health experts are becoming concerned about the impact of carefree content at a time when most of the world is still agonizingly stuck under a Covid-19 cloud.

Polls in the UK show that younger people are more likely to be opposed to lockdown than elders. And soon, the UK’s expansive vaccine rollout will reach those ages too. Research by the Office for National Statistics revealed this month that one in six adults under the age of 30 were hesitant about taking a coronavirus vaccine, compared to far smaller numbers of over-50s.

“Celebrities and public figures influence public perceptions, attitudes, and behavior, which comes with great responsibility,” said Ilan Kelman, professor of disasters and health at University College London. “We would hope that all influencers and people in the public eye would make their comments science-based and their actions clearly within the rules,” he said.

“We know from other public health topics that images or accounts of celebrities engaging in harmful behaviors does play a role in others believing that the behavior is acceptable or normal,” Linda Bauld, Bruce and John Usher Professor of Public Health at Edinburgh University, added. “There are a number of studies illustrating that celebrities smoking in films influences youth smoking, and that alcohol endorsements by influencers increase the risk of alcohol abuse in teenagers.

“It is therefore plausible that if we see influencers flouting lock down rules in the press, it normalizes that type of behavior, making it more acceptable,” she said.

“There’s a lot of things that one could say are a bit flippant and irresponsible” online, added Heidi J Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, a research group at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine created to combat vaccine hesitancy.

“The reality is (young people) have been less affected by this pandemic,” she added. “(And) They’ve got a lot of exposure to this misinformation.

“We shouldn’t kid ourselves about the wave of hesitancy we’re going to see in different settings, and particularly with younger people,” she said.

But if they do provide a challenge, influencers can also present an opportunity.

The British government has sought to bring them on side. Last month it appointed Alex George, a contestant on the reality TV show “Love Island,” who returned to work as a frontline doctor during the Covid-19 crisis, to be a Mental Health Ambassador. And last year £63,000 ($88,000) was given to 42 influencers in exchange for them promoting its coronavirus Test and Trace program.

“I think it’s a good thing — we’ll need a diversity of types of voices,” Larson said. “It’s important to have some credible and authoritative voices on social media.”

Even travel companies like Herman’s are looking to use influencers in a new way, encouraging them to start posting about how Covid-secure hotels are once they re-start promotions.

And Beganovich is predicting lasting changes in the influencing industry, with a new interest in content from health experts. “I’ve seen ER doctors who gain a lot of popularity through Instagram,” she said. “Even influencers are influenced.”

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